Author and memoirist Fatima Bhutto’s slender but potent volume for Columbia Global Reports (an imprint from Columbia University devoted to long-form journalism), surveys a shift in global popular culture in which America’s soft-power dominance is facing challenges from local art forms.
Seoul 1954. The Korean War armistice has been signed less than a year ago. Millions are dead and a shattered country struggles to rise from the rubble. There is little food and even less hope. Seoul teems with ghosts.
These aren’t bedtime stories. Indeed, reading them before bed might not be a good idea at all.
When Travis Jeppesen, 37-year-old writer and art critic, spotted the ad offering a one-month study program in North Korea, he didn’t hesitate. Not that he was any wide-eyed naif: he’d visited four times before. But he was done with package tours, with being shuttled from monument to tedious monument. If he were to return to the DPRK (the country’s official name, i.e. the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”), it would have to be for a different sort of trip.
This collection of short stories presents the grim reality of war-torn Manchuria in the 1930s. Despite the extreme poverty and brutality depicted, such is the skill of author Kang Kyeong-ae that her oppressed characters achieve a kind of nobility, at least in art if not in life.
What do you do when you’re given a magic sword and a “dragon horse”? You sally out into the wicked world, of course, rescue maidens in distress, overthrow evil kings and chop off a great deal of heads while shouting over and over again variations of “Stretch out your neck and receive my sword!” However, as you fight manfully to restore your Crown Prince to his throne, which has been usurped by a wicked, scheming Prime Minister, you demonstrate at the same time the supreme Confucian virtues of filial piety and loyalty as well as respecting your teachers and learning how to become a good judge of people.
In just fifty years, South Korea has transformed itself from a failed state, ruined and partitioned by war and decades of colonial rule, into an economic powerhouse and a democracy that serves as a model for other countries. How was it able to achieve this with no natural resources and a tradition of authoritarian rule? Who are the Koreans and how did they accomplish this second Asian miracle?