Krys Lee on South Korea, Writing, and Disaster

By Jeff KingstonJune 20, 2014

Krys Lee on South Korea, Writing, and Disaster

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I RECENTLY CAUGHT UP with Krys Lee, author of the acclaimed short story collection Drifting House (2012). Emerging from the Digital Media City (DMC) subway station, I saw a woman reading Roland Barthe’s Image, Music, Text and figured it must be her.

After buying some mangoes (three for about $5) from a truck vendor we fell into conversation walking through the ghost town of DMC, a gleaming complex of office towers, wide boulevards, open plazas, snazzy sculptures, and very few pedestrians. It is only 30 minutes by subway from the teeming streets of central Seoul, but feels like a distant futuristic planet and, shall we say, a bit soulless. Lee points out all the leading media and production companies that jumped on board this government project to establish a thriving media hub, but early on a Friday night, the lights were dim and sidewalks rolled up.

Lee has a busy schedule of overseas readings, conferences, and festivals on top of teaching creative writing at Seoul’s Yonsei University and writing a newspaper column, but comes across as calm, friendly, and unhurried. In April she won the lottery for promising young writers: the prestigious Rome Prize for fiction. So, later this year she will get to enjoy a somewhat less hectic and more pampered life in the plush confines of the American Academy in Rome where she will have time to revise and rework the draft of her new novel in the Eternal City surrounded by about 30 other bright lights from a range of disciplines. As the evening progressed it seemed obvious they made a good choice. 

Our conversation began about her work with North Korean defectors to South Korea and the difficulties they encounter. She mentioned some interesting people with whom she worked, including a former student anti-government protestor in the 1980s who apparently had mob ties, ran a hostess nightclub, and somehow got involved in working with refugees. Lee no longer works on this project apparently due to unspecified, but easily imagined differences with some of the Christian activists participating in the project.

Having read Lee’s stories, I wasn’t surprised that she has acerbic views about South Korea, leavened with a certain degree of cultural pride and an appreciation of everyday life in her homeland. Lee spent her formative years in the US, so upon returning a decade or so ago she threw herself into total language and cultural immersion for an entire year, avoiding English speakers, reading only in Korean, and forcing herself to be more social than she prefers, hanging out with people in order to absorb and assimilate. She celebrated the end of her English language hiatus by reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession

It really bothers Lee that South Koreans are obsessed with status and background and quite unselfconsciously elitist. A subject, she said, for a future column. South Koreans, she adds, feel a deep prejudice towards North Korean defectors because they lack any of the social capital South Koreans prize above all else. They arrive at the lowest rung of the social ladder in an intensely hierarchical society and are regarded as backward and uncultured, the hillbillies of the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps they are an embarrassing reminder of the not-too-distant past when the entire peninsula was mired in poverty. Unlike pre-reunification Germany, North Koreans live in a hermetically sealed world that leaves them clueless about what to expect. East Germans, she adds, were much better prepared because they could watch western television and even take day trips into the capitalist world, but North Koreans are simply cut off, making it that much harder for them to adjust. 

South Koreans, Lee said, are better at feeling pity than empathy, an emotion that is steeped in condescension; the object of pity is put in an inferior position that defines the relationship. This sentiment, she pointed out, is relevant to South Korea’s ODA focusing on Africa; development assistance places the donor above the recipient.

In her view South Korea no longer has a complex towards Japan, pointing out that Samsung has buried Sony, South Korean companies fare better in global branding ratings, and the sun has been setting on Tokyo through two long decades of recession. It’s safe to say that Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has also done little to burnish Japan’s image with his provocative gestures and statements regarding the shared past and unresolved historical grievances.

Lee says that one of the good things about growing up in the US was a passionate embrace of the American ideals of justice and equality, ones that are often not realized there, but still serve to inspire. That is why she has an intense sense of injustice about the way North Korean defectors are mistreated in South Korean society and an equally intense desire to do something about it. They suffer, “Just because a piece of paper (passport) restricts their movements and denies them their basic rights.” 

Exuding the kindness of someone who has suffered a great deal of unkindness, Lee bristles at the discrimination that ring-fences the world of defectors. She identifies with the North Korean defectors in South Korea, some 30,000 strong, elbowed to the margins of South Korean society, because this is what she experienced in a hardscrabble life as an immigrant in the US. Lee lived the insecurity and suffered the indignities of someone living on the fringes. Being orphaned at a young age in a family lacking the resources that can make a difference between a hard and soft landing made Lee into a champion of underdogs. Returning to Seoul gave her the, “privilege suddenly of not being a minority.”

I suggested that her short story collection presents a grim portrait of Korean society — both in the US and South Korea. The stories revolve around dysfunctional families, broken relationships, flawed people, derailed careers and unrealized dreams, a bleak kaleidoscope of life on the wrong side of happiness and fulfillment. Lee claims her writing is not autobiographical, but admits, “I couldn’t write what I write unless I lived the life I did.” And it is this life that leaves her “obsessed with survivors,” surrounding herself with lonely people who made it though painful and destructive experiences. 

One of her short stories — a salaryman who spirals into homelessness — is based on a former boyfriend who joined a large company and suddenly went through a total transformation into an unattractive corporate warrior she no longer knew. There is also a housewife longing to be beaten again by her estranged husband, a daughter who comforts her father by sleeping with him, a man who finds solace from a shaman, and a lonely husband, separated from his family living overseas, who falls in love with a younger gay man. Perhaps the only really unbearable characters are preachers.

Lee explains that her father was not well prepared for migrant life in the US and the struggle to make ends meet. He was ex-military, and perhaps to compensate for the humiliations endured, he was intensely patriarchal and authoritarian. This helped define Lee and reinforce her egalitarian values. Her US experiences with Christians still rankle, but, “Fortunately, Korean society is not as rigid or conservative as my family.” Coming back to Seoul she has connected with her relatives and feels less deracinated, yet even if she has learned to assimilate she still feels alienated. Over a steaming pot of bulgogi and octopus stew she confides, “Anyone who spends most of their time reading and writing alone, talking to people who don’t exist [her characters] feels a natural affinity for the vulnerable, awkward, and strange.”


The Craft

“Editing” she says, “is where the real writing happens.” Lee just spent the afternoon ripping out two major scenes, “killing my darlings,” a painful but necessary process of revision. She turned in a draft of her book 18 months ago, but it has now been so thoroughly reworked that the publisher is in for a surprise. She is a patient writer and wants to take time revising as she gets to know her characters and make sure it is a book with which they feel comfortable. The novel is something about North Korea, but she is more interested in talking about the writing process. “As a writer our intention imposes limits. A draft is about my intention, but the mystery and power of literature involves getting to know the characters and their intentions about what they want the book to be.” Rewriting is driven by the characters “surprising” the writer with the unforeseen and with reciprocity, giving them a say in how the story unfolds. Often she wonders, “Why did they suddenly do that?” Like real people, the characters are coy about who they are and what they intend, but over time the relationship deepens and they gradually reveal their inner selves. Lee admits the challenge is to respond to the connections and relationships characters create from multiple points of view, a process of “moving in and out of characters.” Inevitably political and socio-economic realities shape her characters because it is part of their wider experience, but she intentionally keeps these developments in the background.


Sewol Ferry Disaster 

The Sewol tragedy has been a time of reckoning for South Korean society, plunging a knife into national identity while sparking introspection about what ails society and raising questions about priorities. The Sewol also took down more than a few comforting myths. The old nautical standbys “women and children first” and “a captain goes down with his ship” contrast with the Sewol’s captain being one of the first to abandon ship while the students were told not to move, explaining why so many did not scramble to jump ship and needlessly drowned. The government’s fumbling disaster response and botched rescue efforts sit uncomfortably with a national identity that draws on the remarkable advances achieved over the past half century. Lee believes there is a lingering sense of inferiority among South Koreans who remain unconvinced by objective barometers of success and yet, paradoxically, are intensely proud of those achievements. It is a volatile mix of self-loathing and arrogance that has ignited the kindling of discontent in society and, like a wind-whipped forest fire raging out of control, is consuming everything in its unpredictable path. Just ask President Park.

Lee hastens to remind friends that South Korea is hardly the only government to fail its people during a disaster, citing Hurricane Katrina as Exhibit A. Like President George W. Bush, President Park Geun-hye may be facing her Katrina moment, an irreversible decline in moral authority and public trust. As one shopkeeper explained to me, “In Korea the president is much more than a politician. We think of the president like a parent who can take care of us and provide comfort when we need it. On this she has failed and won’t be forgiven.” President Park is clearly ill at ease in her role as healer-in-chief, unable to provide what a traumatized nation expects of her. And so the people are turning on her, regarding her as the fixer-in-chief in a rotten system where it seems the fix is always in. Redemption is still possible, but unlikely in a nation that is unforgiving of its leaders’ lapses. The long knives are out as opportunists seek political advantage. 

Sewol holds up a mirror to Koreans and they don’t like what they see, a deeply entrenched web of cozy and collusive relations between officials and businessmen that systematically sacrifices the public interest at the altar of greed. Problematically, the arc of deceit and corner cutting stretches from a penny-pinching ferry line into South Korea’s high tech, modern sectors. In 2013, three of South Korea’s nuclear reactors were shut down because parts with fraudulent safety certificates were used, implicating regulators in thrall to the nominally regulated — shades of Fukushima. Soon after the ferry capsized, a Seoul subway accident again jolted a shaken nation that knows it failed its children. There are nagging suspicions that the pedal-to-the-metal ethos that catapulted South Korea into the elite club of seven 20–50 nations (minimum per capita income of $20,000 and population of 50 million) has also nurtured an anything goes mentality for which the bills are now coming due.

I met Lee in mid-May as the sad saga of the Sewol ferry tragedy continued to unfold in the media, pulling back the veil on many lurid realities that she found disturbing. The sudden discovery of a cult’s possible role in the tragedy has stoked virulent hostility in society as people vent their anger over the tragic loss of so many lives, mostly teenage students. She explains, “A lot of this is news to us. We didn’t know about this cult. Who they are, what they believe in.” Yet, Lee asks, “Where is the line drawn between mainstream religions and cults? Who decides and why are some beliefs considered a religion and others dismissed as a cult?”

The collective and cascading grief and outrage precipitated by the Sewol calamity has traumatized society, but has also triggered an outpouring of compassion as a dignified people take stock. In front of Seoul City Hall, even three weeks after the sinking, people were lining up to pay their respects, hanging yellow ribbons and making yellow paper boats that were assembled into the shape of a massive heart. The brutal and unforgivable truth driving collective grief is the gnawing awareness that the nation failed its children. Greater scrutiny of the unseemly ways and means of government-business collusion, and the costs and risk this entails, may be one of the few positive outcomes of this tragic debacle.


Culture Wars

South Korea, like many societies, is experiencing culture wars between the > 40 year olds and younger generation. Lee observes that South Korean society has changed so much so quickly that the generations have very little in common and can’t really relate to each other. This is a problem everywhere but perhaps a bit more intensely so in a society that has come so far so fast. South Korea’s rigid hierarchies face growing pressure from an impatient youth not content to bide its time. There is also a jarring incongruity between the value of respecting the aged and what Lee sees as an enormous generational chasm inimical to displays of filial piety. 

Whereas older South Koreans trusted in their employers and were intensely loyal, this faith evaporated following the 1997–98 financial crisis and International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. Employees were betrayed and younger South Koreans understand this is the new reality and act accordingly. They all may want a job with a leading chaebol (business conglomerate), but they start planning their second career early on and use the firm as a springboard. Few expect that they will spend their entire careers at the same company as stable employment fades. Indeed, South Korea’s precariat constitutes about one-third of the entire workforce, meaning low pay, no security, and dim prospects for improvement. Like Japan, there is a growing awareness of the link between low fertility and a growing precariat as many remain unmarried, not confident that they have the resources to raise a family. 

One of the huge disruptive changes in society is the shrinking family and the growing percentage of people living alone. Lee believes that Korean society is not really prepared for this atomization and people are disturbed by this trend towards isolation. So much so, she says, that the growing number of studios sold to people living on their own are designed with small windows to prevent suicide in a nation where it is a raging epidemic. 

Whereas older people found it difficult to travel, for younger South Koreans it is relatively easy and common, exposing them to new experiences and influences from an early age. This, along with the internet, has spawned new attitudes. For example, gender equality may remain an elusive goal overall, but Lee spots signs of change; younger couples go grocery shopping together and fathers seem more involved in child rearing. In her own relationship, her younger partner does all the cooking. But what seems more common in Seoul is not yet spreading to the provinces where patriarchy remains robust and gender roles more sharply defined. 

Rural South Korea remains conservative and is viewed fondly by urbanites as a repository of Korean culture and values. The media, Lee says, makes a big deal of statistics showing declining rice consumption as if this is a betrayal of national culture: we are what we eat! No such worries extend to Spam consumption trends in a nation that has embraced this canned meat with more enthusiasm than anywhere else on the planet, boasting their own local brand of a retro delicacy said by connoisseurs to be better tuned to local tastes. But oddly enough, unlike rice, it is not sacred. 

And the LBGT community? Aside from some trendy media tokenism, Lee doesn't really see much acceptance or tolerance. Coming out of the closet remains difficult because, “They can’t live in ROK and be out.” Sons have filial obligations that assume mainstream orientations and a conservative Christianity imposes its own moral code, even giving a Lady Gaga concert an age rating! Unlike in Japan, where Prime Minister Abe’s wife Akie rode a float in the Gay Pride Parade, this remains a no-go zone for Korean politicians. But there is a district known as Homo Hill (this name actually appears on tourist maps) that Lee describes as a “refuge for outsiders” not far from a mosque and a bevy of nightclubs and hostess bars in Itaewon catering to a range of other clients. 

Over the next week wandering around Seoul’s museums and memorials I had time to reflect on Lee’s Korea, a dynamic and diverse society in flux, and somewhat in denial, with vast reservoirs of cultural capital and an incredible capacity to reinvent itself. It is a conservative society ripped from familiar moorings, deeply divided generationally and regionally, embracing change while seeking solace in fading continuities. It is a nation obsessed with its past while racing for the future. At the Seodaemun Prison History Museum I saw an openly lesbian couple nuzzling and holding hands as they toured the colonial era prison where the Japanese jailed and tortured independence activists. They took turns locking each other into the claustrophobic isolation cells, laughing and taking pictures as one donned a wicker hood, manacled hands stretched in front of her on a table where visitors can understand what it felt like to anticipate the infamous fingernail torture. There is also a very popular feature where one can have one’s picture digitally inserted onto a hooded prisoner (there are other options), allowing visitors to identify with what was endured. And, the museum will email the photo to you as a keepsake. The depredations of Japanese colonial rule are richly detailed here and several other museums, an organized remembering that helps explain frosty relations between Tokyo and Seoul; victims cling to collective pain while perpetrators are inclined to forget and unhappy to be reminded. Yet the large numbers of Japanese tourists in Seoul, the widespread use of Japanese in taxis, hotels, shops, signs, and restaurants, attest to a different narrative.

After stopping to see the eerie statue of a comfort woman seated across from the Japanese Embassy, decorated with a sprig of flowers someone had placed on her collar, I wandered to the nearby National Museum of Korean Contemporary History that opened at the end of 2012. It is an amazing repository and display of how a nation would like to portray itself: five floors brimming with touchstones and milestones of national identity that takes visitors from the early encounters with imperialism and the devastation of a fratricidal civil war up through the “Miracle on the Han River” of rapid economic growth, the emergence of a robust civil society and democracy, and accelerating globalization. Naturally there is a massive screen for K-pop music videos, although Psy’s Gangnam Style is notably absent. The enclosed soccer ball–shaped booth devoted to South Korea’s co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup features surround sound and video that conveys the wild enthusiasm that prevailed, a high decibel experience that will keep you throbbing way beyond the museum’s exit. Coinciding with the FIFA World Cup 2014, there is also a special exhibit on the experience of Korean migrants to Brazil over the past half century. 

This captivating museum articulates a story of struggle, perseverance, and overcoming the odds, the high tech genesis story of modern South Korea with dioramas, digital and interactive displays that are definitely not like the boring museums your parents dragged you to. However, this mainstream narrative of unremitting tumult, national pride, relentless striving, and boosterism made me appreciate, all over again, Lee’s insistence on probing the margins and giving voice to the outsiders, the wounded, and the disadvantaged. 


Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies and Professor of History at Temple University Japan.

LARB Contributor

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.


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