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[Cover Feature] A Mourning against Mourning

by Sung Hyunah Translated by Yewon Jung March 7, 2023

Only in January of this year was it confirmed that a sergeant named Oh Mungyo, whose remains had finally been identified, had died in battle during the Korean War (1950-1953).1  Korean history is unusually rife with individuals whose deaths are held in suspension. Death occurred repeatedly through the eras of conflict that saw the Japanese occupation and the Korean fight for independence, the division of the peninsula and the struggle to establish a unified government, the oppression of a dictatorship and the democratic movement against its tyrannical government, and so on. The only divided nation in the world today, Korea faces the challenging tasks of ascertaining the truth of historical tragedies and preventing similar tragedies from taking place, because the division itself serves as a pretext for violence. 

    After liberation from Japanese rule, the South Korean government made anticommunism its national agenda. Communists were the proclaimed enemy, and through the course of history became nothing more than “commies” who deserved to be killed off. And that wasn’t all. People were punished not because they were communists per se; rather, they were punished because the term could be used to justify state terror.2  So the thoughts and ideologies that appear to be criteria for distinguishing enemies from allies had, in fact, nothing to do with all this violence. Countless massacres were committed to maximize fear and antagonism and to stifle criticism. Those who commemorated the dead, too, were deemed reactionaries, as the dead were deemed communists. What can Korean literature say—or what should it say—when certain deaths are regarded as not worth grieving, when even the opportunity to remember them is denied?

    In the past, Korean literature served as a counter-memory while the state forbade the memory of mass murder. Covered-up deaths were written down to tell people the appalling truth; the facts were embodied in stories so that they would be remembered longer, made more specific so that they could be experienced more closely. In addition, Korean literature had to defy mourning in certain forms. The victims of the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre and the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion, for instance, were forced to remain silent for a long period of time, but during that same period the Syngman Rhee regime made political use of the incidents through zealous mourning. How contradictory was it that those who allowed the massacre of civilians then grieved the deaths? Through a memorial service grieving the deaths of the military and police whose lives were sacrificed, this regime coerced people together and exercised control over them.3  By distorting the facts even while extending condolences, the regime came up with a false narrative on how the lives of innocent citizens were destroyed by communists, and stressed their political legitimacy by mourning for only a select group of people.

    Through it all, literature was used as a means to encourage such dramatized mourning. Most of the writers called to cooperate with the munin josaban (investigation party consisting of writers and literary figures), ostensibly to ascertain the truth of what had happened during the Yeosu incident, depicted rebel forces as evil and savage creatures, labeling them cannibals and beasts.4  The mass killing of civilians by riot soldiers was hardly even mentioned. So literature played a role in reinforcing the reductionist thought that the evil forces threatening the good citizens had to be eradicated. This goes to show how many obstacles there must have been in Korean society to grieving tragic deaths. 

    Korean literature must practice mourning by resisting three different types of mourning in general. First, a distorted form thereof. In other words, it must fight attempts to misuse a person’s death by forging records and making false reports. To do so requires an effort to examine historical facts from multiple angles and to shed light on hidden aspects in order to secure an exhaustive record. To that end, authors in Korean society had to risk their lives. Hyun Ki-young, who divulged the truth regarding the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre through his book, Sun-i Samch’on, was in fact taken to the Defense Security Command and subjected to severe torture.

    Second, a mourning that refuses selective mourning. Literature must make note of the names considered less important than others and relegated to the back burner, and hence deprived of a chance to be remembered; it must also question the assessment, “worth remembering.” For instance, a number of literary works emphasize that citizens who participated in the May 18 Democratic Movement possessed a noble determination for democracy, thereby restoring their honor and making the horrors known. This restoration of honor was an urgent and important task, as the victims had been condemned as rioters. But because the priority was on proving the purity of their beliefs, the fact that women working in adult entertainment businesses were actively engaged in the democratization movement was completely overlooked. “Like the Amazones,” a poem by Ko Yeongseo, and “If I Follow You,” a short story by Yi Hyunseok, deal with this fact and seek to bring to light the other main participants who were kept away from the spotlight.

    Third, a nationalistic mourning. In the case of “comfort women”—sex slaves for Japanese soldiers—there was a tendency to discuss the harms the women suffered within a nationalistic frame. This method of mourning must have been chosen to remind people of the nation’s painful past and strengthen their solidarity. This has positive implications in that it enables people to remember the pain inflicted upon the victims by Japanese soldiers and to respond to their painful experiences. But there’s a risk of reducing the comfort women to the symbolic role of national victims, thereby turning the individual women into abstract figures, and even giving rise to the presumption that only people of the same nationality may partake in mourning. Wary of such consequences, the author Kim Soom wrote One Left, a novel that focuses on the life of just one woman, and Sublime is Looking Inside of Yourself, based on one person’s testimony, devoid of a traditional narrative structure. Another author, Seong Haena, broke away from the typical method of creating a character based on an actual historical figure when writing about comfort women, and came up with a singular character named Oz, depicting her as someone with her own unique tastes.

    Let’s take a look at Han Kang’s We Do Not Part, a novel that expands on the meaning of mourning by resisting a set way of grieving. The storyline is relatively simple. Gyeongha, a novelist, goes to her friend Inseon’s house in Jeju to save Ama, Inseon’s pet parrot, left all alone in the house because Inseon is in the hospital with a severed finger; Gyeongha, however, fails to save the bird. In the meantime, other factors come into the picture: the May 18 Democratic Movement, which Gyeongha’s last novel dealt with; stories of Vietnamese survivors who were sexually violated by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, turned into a documentary film by Inseon; the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre, experienced firsthand by Inseon’s parents; the Bodo League Massacre, exposed in the process of tracing the remains of Inseon’s uncle.

    The incidents mentioned in We Do Not Part are described without much clarity—none can be confirmed as factual. The April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre, first of all, is told through bits and pieces of various testimonies, revealing only the shadows of fragmentary episodes; no clear record or objective proof exists. The dead cannot speak, and what records there once were, have been manipulated or have ceased to exist. Survivors are witnesses but, at the same time, victims who suffered violence surpassing the limit of what one can endure. Those suffering from PTSD show signs of hallucination, dementia, or loss of memory after being forced to remain silent for years. So their testimonies are nothing but sketchy bits of memory without any context. Besides, Gyeongha, the focalizer of the novel, hears these stories only through Inseon, reconstructed through Inseon’s own language. On top of that, Inseon, who tells Gyeongha the stories, is a hallucination or a spirit if Gyeongha herself isn’t dead, and if Gyeongha is dead, Inseon is someone Gyeongha encounters in a sort of vision after death. All the memories are nothing but faint silhouettes, vaguely revealing themselves in a blizzard that blurs the view.

    The most intense and real pain, and therefore the most conspicuous, is the one experienced by Inseon, whose stitched-up finger is pricked by a needle every three minutes in the affected area. As a result, tragic incidents get shoved to the background, and comments by critics on the novel being off-balance seem appropriate enough. But the novel’s focus on Inseon’s pain rather than on historical tragedy sheds light on the attitude of the generation living after the tragedy. Even if one reflects on historical tragedy and sympathizes with others’ pain, the pain inflicted on one’s own body is so much closer to oneself, and so much more intense. Not only that, the tragedies mentioned in this novel are nothing but glimpses of blurred memories that can’t be turned into one unified story, and can only be experienced secondhand through one’s imagination as Gyeongha had. A tragedy that doesn’t feel quite real because parts of the story are missing is consigned to the back seat in reality. The detailed description and emphasis of the pain experienced by Inseon seems to be a strategy to accentuate the difficulty of mourning and make it as distinct as possible.

    The process of bleeding a sutured area to prevent a scab from forming, exacting pain on the person, is a procedure undertaken to keep the flesh above the severed nerves from dying. Inseon feels hopeless, knowing that she must live with the pain for three weeks, stabbed with a needle every three minutes; she honestly wants to give up. But the doctor tells her, “The pain that comes from saving the finger is stronger at the moment, of course, but if you decide to give up the finger, the pain will last the rest of your life and you won’t be able to do anything about it.” If she stops the procedure to keep the pain at bay, she will have to deal with phantom pain for the rest of her life, which serves as an allegory for mourning—facing tragedy head-on will result in severe internal injury. Investigating and writing a novel about the horrific violence committed by the military during the May 18 Democratic Movement has left a pain so deep in Gyeongha that she has trouble going about her daily life. The horrors of Jeju subsequently encountered by Inseon and Gyeongha bring them great sorrow as well. But if they don’t face them now, they must suffer for all the days to come, knowing that the roots are rotten. It is as if to warn us that the guilt of silence and denial will only be prolonged should we forsake mourning.  

    In addition, Han Kang has conceived a way to connect people through pain, a direct and common sensation everyone experiences, rather than the concept of a race, an abstract body of people. Inseon plays a variation on the word soksomheora, a verb that means to stay quiet so as not to be caught, by saying that she feels blanketed in cotton (somsok), transforming the word into something that describes the soft texture of snow. This brings to mind the words repeated throughout the novel, that snow stays frozen on the faces of the dead but melts on the warm face of one who’s alive. Snow melts, “turning into cold drops of water that then turn into tears,” and we become someone who can cry for others’ pain. The warmth of a living person can melt what’s frozen, making it soft, and melted snow can turn into tears.

    Further, the melting of snow indicates the loosening of countless bonds forming the crystals. As the bonds are loosened, Han Kang moves on to the notion that the death of a friend’s pet parrot is just as grave a loss as the historical tragedy of the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre, that the gravity of one can’t be weighed against that of the other. Gyeongha feels an inexplicable degree of pain at the death of Ama, the bird. “I don’t understand. Ama doesn’t belong to me. I’ve never even loved the bird enough to feel such pain,” she ponders. Her words are in keeping with the testimony of a survivor in the novel who says that the image of a young mother having her dead infant taken away by the police remains more vivid in her memory than her own experience with brutal torture:


    “People were getting on several patrol wagons when a young woman in the back of the line howled, No! No! She had a baby who’d died on the ship, either from starvation or disease, and the police had ordered her to leave the dead baby on the wet dock. The woman struggled, screaming that she couldn’t; the police just snatched away the baby, quilt-wrapped baby, and put it on the ground, then dragged the woman forward and put her on the wagon.

    How strange, that I recall her voice from time to time, more often than . . . the unspeakable torture I went through, and the unjust imprisonment. And I remember how the people, more than a thousand of them standing in line, all turned their heads to look at the quilt wrapping the baby.”


    More than a thousand people taken away and put through unimaginable hardships are pained to see a dead child being taken away from a woman—a stranger. They grieve together, feeling her pain as though it were their own, when they don’t even know her, and when they each are enduring different pains.

    Mourning for complete strangers is considered more difficult than mourning for someone close. So when people speak of the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre or the May 18 Democratic Movement, they use terms such as “one blood” and “one people,” emphasizing that they can be connected to one another as “we.” But as much as this may be a way to bring people together to mourn, it can also be a way of continuing on with the principle of exclusion, as it can create the constraint that mourning is possible only when people are united as “we.” It can be assumed that such an abstruse and unclear narrative was required in order to break free from the kind of mourning that has its start in drawing boundaries. Through the medium of pain, Han Kang suggests the possibility that we can mourn the pain of a stranger we’ve never met, a stranger who is not of our own nationality, a stranger who has nothing to do with us. This is also a process through which we can learn to go beyond people, including those who have experienced historical tragedy, and mourn for animals, who have been considered a different class altogether from humans.

    In “Oz,” the short story by Seong Haena, tattoos are used as a means of mourning and healing. To have one’s skin tattooed, a needle is used to forge a wound on the skin, after which ink is inserted into the wound to produce a picture or words. To carve something onto something else, something has to be scratched out first. Just like the scratch art book Oz gives to Hara as a gift. When you scratch a page covered with dark ink with your fingernail, a beautiful drawing full of colors reveals itself. Concealment and distortion, selection and symbolization must be discussed more often and examined properly so that forgotten names may take on their colors again. It is certain that new works of literature are coming into existence even today, to cast off a narrow sense of mourning and come up with a deeper, more comprehensive way to mourn. 



Translated by Yewon Jung



Sung Hyunah is a literary critic. She began her literary career in 2021 by winning the New Writer’s Contest held by the Kyunghyang Shinmun and the Chosun Ilbo. She received the Daesan Creative Writing Fund in 2022.


Korean Works Mentioned:

• Sun’i Sam’chon (ASIA, 2012)

『순이 삼촌』 (창비, 2015)

• “Like the Amazones,” The Season of the Salmon’s Return (Cheon-nyeon-eui-sijak Publishing, 2021)

「아마조네스 여인들처럼」, 『연어가 돌아오는 계절』 (천년의시작, 2021)

• “If I Follow You,” In a Different World, Too (Jaeum & Moeum Publishing, 2021)

「너를 따라가면」, 『다른 세계에서도』 (자음과모음, 2021)

• One Left (University of Washington Press, 2020)

『한 명』 (현대문학, 2016)

• “Oz,” Light Underneath Light (Munhakdongne, 2022)

「오즈」, 『빛을 걷으면 빛』 (문학동네, 2022)

• We Do Not Part (Hamish Hamilton, 2024)

『작별하지 않는다』 (문학동네, 2021)




[1] Pak Eungyeong, “Identity of Oh Mungyo, a Sergeant, Who Died on Arrowhead Hill Without Seeing His Baby Boy, is Confirmed at Last,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, 18 January, 2023.

[2] Kim Deukjung, The Birth of Commies: The Yeosun Incident and the Formation of an Anticommunist Nation, Sunin, 2009, 46-47.

[3] Kim Bong-guk, et al. “Politics of Mourning and Veteran Support During the Early Period of Syngman Rhee’s Government: Monopoly, Crevice, and Ambivalence of Mourning” The Politics of Mourning: The Death and Memory of Modern East Asia, Gil Publishing, 2017, 132-135.

[4] Kim Deukjung, 402-403.


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