Review: Shadow of Arms by Hwang Sok-yong

The Vietnam War is the dark shadow of Korean economic development. Just as Japan’s post–World War II economic success owes much to its supplying of US troops in the Korean War, South Korea used the Vietnam War as a springboard for its own great leap forward. Several successfulbusinesses, like the chaebols Hyundai and Daewoo, grew into huge conglomerates as a result of war-related contracts with the United States. The South Korean military, sustained by US supplies and training during the Vietnam era, also served as the backbone of South Korea’s authoritarian regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1980, the Chun Doo-Hwan government relied on battle-hardened Korean troops to put down the Gwangju Uprising, the penultimate challenge to the US-backed dictators. Korea’s Vietnam syndrome is less about what Korea did in Vietnam than about the way the war transformed Korea for better or worse, and the consequent feelings of guilt and anger that have settled into the silt of the Korean psyche.  

And now, thanks to Hwang Sok-yong and Seven Stories Press, the English-speaking world has another literary take on Korea’s Vietnam syndrome. Hwang is one of South Korea’s leading novelists. He was also one of the country’s most prominent dissidents. He was first jailed in 1964 for labor activism. Later, facing a seven-year prison sentence, he decamped to the United States and Germany. When he returned to Korea, he was promptly thrown in jail again, where he conducted numerous hunger strikes. Finally pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, he continued to write and publish novels, including The Guest, a powerful exploration of guilt and responsibility in the Korean War that won the prestigious Daesan Prize in South Korea in 2001.