Kim Young-ha’s celebrated novel, “Your Republic Is Calling You,” is an account of a North Korean spy named Ki-yong who has lived in South Korea since the mid-1980s with no contact from the North. Cut off from the North for such a long time, he assumes that the North Korean government has completely forgotten him in the vortex of its shifts of power. Meanwhile, Ki-yong has become so accustomed to South Korean society and a lifestyle marked by capitalism and liberalism that he cannot possibly go back to the North and survive there now.
One day, however, North Korea abruptly summons him. He suddenly finds himself in a dilemma: Must he return to North Korea, obeying the order from his Republic, abandoning his family and freedom or should he ignore the summons and continue to stay in the South where he is comfortable? He has lived comfortably in South Korean society for so long that he no longer fits the totalitarian, communist country in the North. At the end of the story, Ki-yong decides not to go back and stay in the South, even though his Republic is calling him.
“Your Republic Is Calling You” depicts what happened in Korean universities in the 1980s, at a time when radical students’ anti-government demonstrations and student-led workers’ strikes were at their peak. At the time, North Korea naturally wanted to make the most of the situation. Kim’s novel states, “Pyongyang was observing with interest the South’s rapidly growing leftist student activist movement. The North Korean leaders believed they needed a new process to create better agents. Pyongyang’s new, ambitious plan was to get a well-trained agent to infiltrate a college freshmen class in the South and have him mature and develop with budding student activists.” It is precisely in this context North Korea sent Ki-yong to the South as a spy, who then infiltrated Yonsei University.
Since the novelist Kim Young-ha was an undergraduate student at Yonsei in the mid-1980s, he could vividly render what happened at the time in his novel that is also an important social document. For example, Kim writes, “At the time, in 1986, with Kim Yong-hwan of Seoul National University leading the way, Juche Ideology was at the cusp of popularity, poised to spread across college campuses nationwide.” Those who subscribed to Maoism and Kim Il-sung’s Juche Ideology belonged to the NL (National Liberation) camp, and those who followed Marx and Lenin formed the PD camp, the initials standing for People’s Democracy.
Ki-yong joins the NL camp and observes the members. He writes, “At night, they met with the education cell and learned about Juche Ideology. Fearful and hesitant, they met clandestinely and learned about Kim Il-sung’s days as a freedom fighter against the Japanese occupation, exchanging looks of awe and referring to Kim Il-sung as Dear Leader and Kim Jong-il as General.” One of the radical students tells Ki-yong, “Our pressing goal is to adopt the ideology of Kim Il-sung as our revolutionary code and complete South Korea’s revolution, driving American imperialists from our land.”
Watching those radical students’ idolizing of North Korea, Ki-yong thinks that South Korean student political activists are naive and ignorant of North Korea. The novel narrates, “They really had no idea what it was like to live in a world where everyone got up at the same time when the morning siren went off at seven, went to work at the same time and came together with the whole community every night to rehash and criticize the day’s mistakes. There was no such thing as an individual in the North.”
Of course, we should blame the right-wing military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s that eventually bred those naive left-wing dissidents who adored North Korea, denying the legitimacy of South Korea. At that time, the dictators turned South Korea into the same totalitarian, tyrannical country as North Korea. The novel states, “In the 1980s, when Ki-yong was in college, South Korea was closer to North Korea that it was to today’s South.
At the time, for example, military dictators of the South implemented courses on citizen ethics at universities in order to make people obedient to the tyrannical government. To someone from the North such as Ki-yong, the content of the citizen ethics classes of the South was strikingly similar to the Juche Ideology of the North. Ki-yong recollects, “Citizen Ethics, which taught him about the importance of putting the state and societal morals before anything else, was familiar. It all made sense if he replaced ‘state’ with ‘nation’ with ‘Leader’ and ‘Party.’”
However, today’s South Korea is radically different from that of the 1980s. Unfortunately, some of our politicians’ mental clocks still seem to be stuck in that era of confrontation between right-wing military dictatorship and left-wing political ideology. Yet, times have changed and we are now living in a different world. Ki-yong’s decision not to return to North Korea clearly indicates, “You cannot go back to the past, even though your Republic is calling you.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.