Hwang Sok-Yong , Tales from Korea

The acclaimed Korean author and political activist in conversation with English PEN , London, April 7th 2014.


“Even if you are alive somewhere, the absence of the other person who used to be there beside you obliterates your presence. Everything in the room, even the stars in the sky, can disappear in a second, changing one scene for another, just like in a dream.”
Hwang Sok-Yong, The Old Garden


Biog: Born in 1943, Hwang Sok-yong is arguably Korea’s most renowned author. In 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for an unauthorized trip to the North to promote exchange between artists in North and South Korea; five years later, he was released on a special pardon by the new president. The recipient of Korea’s highest literary prizes and shortlisted for the Prix Femina Estranger, his novels and short stories are published in North and South Korea, Japan, China, France, Germany, and the United States.

As part of the 2014 London Book Fair focus on Korea, English PEN hosted an evening with Hwang Sok-Yong .The special focus on Korea derives partly from The British Council’s 18 month cultural literary exchange with South Korea , and the recent first time availability of English translations of a series of Korean novels. We were reminded of the rich  Korean history of printing that led to the printing of the Jikji in 1377, the oldest extant movable metal print book.

The author animatedly read an excerpt from “Princess Bari” ( see sampler link below), which reminded me of just how far I have yet to go in my Korean language studies.

The evening examined themes of  incarceration , modernisation, ideology and conflict  and conveying experiences through different writing styles.

Hwang pondered on the nature of violence and war when the protagonists are close , as in the Korean War. In particular he talked of the Sinchon Massacre, where the small town inhabitants who had previously freely shared food with their neighbours, tuned into a site of mass internecine murder. He described how ideology as depicted in The Guest can generate “self-other” conflicts. In Hwang’s view the competing interpretations of the massacre exposed the underlying motivations of the ideologies ; with the North desperate to avoid suggestions of a Civil war by blaming American imperialists , and the South wishing to avoid Christianity shown in a bad light.

Picasso Massacre in Korea.jpgMassacre in Korea a 1951painting by Pablo Picasso

Similarly, in Shadow of Arms , ostensibly set in the Vietnam War but also serving as an allegory for the Korean War to escape the strict censorship of the time of writing, Hwang sees war as business by another means. War is seen as an extreme expression of how capitalism can go wrong. It has been described as a war novel that does not depict a single gunshot; instead being a novel based on the author’s experience in Korea’s military corps fighting America’s war and the regional economic motivations for the conflict within the larger Cold War.

Turning to his time in prison, Hwang described the experience as one of many stored up memories from which he wrought enough material to publish 8 novels , such as The Ancient Garden. Hwang talked of adapting to prison life and the necessity to re-learn everyday living to survive. The Old Garden was described as an attempt to resolve the pain of his incarceration.

Hwang went on to talk of his meetings with Kim Il Sung who was evidently a huge fan of his writings, thus explaining their continued availability in the DPRK.The  former President apparently found Hwang an interesting character partly due to his inability to kow-tow to the leader. Kim had Hwang’s books audio recorded so he could listen to them as his eyesight  deteriorated in later life.

Lastly the author examined the price of modernity in South Korea and how capitalism had become sly and clever at exploiting the working class.  He described how the migrant workers of the countryside had literally built the modern Korea in the huge transitional period of recent decades. Yet it is the grand children of these workers who now form the modern poor in Korea.

I was fortunate to meet Hwang afterwards and exchange a few words in Korean, and to have him sign my copy of The Ancient Garden.






British Council Q&A with Hwang Sok-Yong On experience, imagination and living with history… February 2014.


Hwang Sok-yong sampler, by Literature Translation Institute of Korea






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