Korea From Inside Out

AHN JUNGHYO'S previous book published by Soho was ``White Badge,'' a tale of the Korean involvement in the Vietnam War. His most startling revelation or accusation was that the South Korean government, in order to seek favor from the Johnson administration, sent its soldiers to fight in a war in which it had no other interest other than favorable trade relations with the United States. Johnson wanted to be able to claim other nations were joining the US in the fight against communism.

In the blood of those unwitting Korean soldiers the success of Hyundai cars and Goldstar microwaves was born. It's strong stuff and important reading if you want to understand the emotional and political powers at work in the Pacific Rim.

In Silver Stallion, his latest offering, actually written before ``White Badge,'' Junghyo tells, through the eyes of a young boy, of the cost of having American (or United Nations, if you want to maintain that fiction) troops in Korea in the '50s to prevent the spread of communism from the North. And the cost was high indeed, remembered in stark detail by Junghyo and probably plenty of other Koreans as well.

In the small village of Kumsan, in which the book is centered, the goings-on in the outside world, even Seoul, are nearly unknown. The Japanese have left and, except for occasional marauding communist bands, life is returning to normal.

Kumsan is as far from the center of the Korean political nation as a small town in Kansas is from Washington. Then, with a suddenness that makes understanding impossible, the World Army, as the UN forces are known, shows up. The wreckage on the local economy is bearable next to the wreckage of the village way of life.

The boy, Mansik, who lives with his widowed mother, picks up bits and pieces from his friends and from others.

He hears of the coming of the great American general Megado, who has beaten the hated Japanese. The communist cadres have been through the village executing people who had any political standing, but they have fled before the Americans.

The World Army has dug in for a long stay, but with them they have brought Western appetites. A ``Texas town'' is set up for the after-hours diversion of the men, and following a rape by US soldiers which marks her as undesirable by the village men, Mansik's mother is forced by poverty into prostitution.

Junghyo's style is simple and spare storytelling. To figure out where his sympathies lie we must look for the slightest inflections. He does his own translations from his own Korean, so presumably his variations of American usage are intentional.

An important and probably purposeful omission is the fixing of any salient blame on the Americans for the wreckage they produce. Facing death every day seems, by the Korean logic, an excuse for giving little thought to the results of your immediate action. Thus the Texas town becomes a veritable hell of corruption and degeneration. By the end of the book, the children are organized into gangs fighting over the garbage dumps at the American bases.

Mansik's mother's ruin is as much the result of the small-mindedness of the village chief and local farmers as it is the American soldier-rapists. The Korean male ego is portrayed as willful and thick-headed. Fathers, for example, refuse to take donations of rice from either side, but would allow their wives and children to steal or beg.

``Women did not care about pride or dignity, because only men were supposed to possess these qualities. Women could not afford to starve to death on account of anything as absurd as honor.''

Junghyo has translated Joseph Heller's masterpiece, ``Catch-22,'' into Korean and has, possibly as a result, a fine sense of the ridiculous in the middle of disaster.

The title refers to a figure in Korean lore, a warrior-prince who will come to save the Korean nation in its extremity, riding a silver stallion. Curiously, when Mansik and his mother are finally forced with the rest of the villagers (and the World Army) to flee to the South before the communist onslaught, the silver stallion and its rider have not appeared. Is it the great chief Megado? Evidently that is for most Koreans still an open question.

Junghyo's two books and a third he is writing about Korea in the '80s are must reading.

But for an American view of current-day life in Korea, Michael Stephens' Lost in Seoul is recommended.

Stephens met his Korean wife in New York, then uprooted himself completely to go and live in her country with her family.

He may have a less rigorous view of Korean failings than Junghyo, but his portrait of family life is authoritative, intriguing, warm, and funny. The respect for elders, the rigorous observance of family tradition, and the rituals of Buddhism are struggling against the bursting economic wealth, the pounding smokestack industries, and the crowded and polluted intensity of the cities.

Throughout every phase of life, there is the lingering tie to America, noticed more accurately by American eyes. Stephens's new family is the focus of the book, but he also discusses the emerging democracy and how it is progressing in a country where the people work seven days a week and pollution is viewed as a sign of prosperity.

This is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean conflict. The evolution of that nation into an industrial powerhouse remains to be defined. These books help.

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