A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow

By Michael Shapiro

Atlantic Monthly Press. 240 pp. $19.95

IN DECEMBER 1988, South Korea held its first free presidential election, climaxing a tumultuous, 26-year struggle against military rule. Most of the American press concluded that democracy had triumphed, and Korea quickly went off the screen.

Eighteen months later, as Michael Shapiro relates, President Roh Tae Woo has yet to make good on his campaign promise to dismantle the police-state apparatus inherited from his predecessors. Repression is once again widespread. Roh has moved cautiously to liberalize the media and academic life, but the same military-dominated establishment that had ruled before 1988 keeps him on a tight leash.

In this sensitive portrayal of the South Korean scene, Shapiro conveys a powerful, pervasive political message but studiously avoids abstractions and polemics. He tells his story through 23 highly readable and frequently moving vignettes focusing on individual Koreans that he got to know well during the year following the presidential election.

Living and reporting in South Korea, he found, is like being "locked in a small room with a manic-depressive, feeling the alternating pulses of ebullience and melancholy. . . . In Korea everything matters. There is winning and losing, and no such thing as the contest well played."

One of the winners is Kim Young Chull, a prototype of the new-rich business elite, who fled to the South from North Korea with his four brothers during the Korean War like some 5 million other refugees. "The miniature wooden shoe business did not work, nor did the paper umbrellas they tried to sell to Polynesian restaurants in the United States. But the idea about the scraps of fur caught on."

The Kim brothers wrote to all of the furriers in the New York telephone directory offering to have their fur scraps sewn into saleable items. One ordered 10,000 "pom-poms," and Jindo Furs were born. As the business grew, the Kims learned how to plug into the cozy network of politically favored banks linked to the military regimes, borrowing more and more to get bigger and bigger. Now Jindo is the largest producer of fur garments in the world, with 50 overseas salons. But Kim Young Chull still feels uprooted, relentlessly driven by the "refugee mentality, the need to show others that we can do it."

Among the more poignantly described losers is a lonely, 38-year-old divorcee, Chung Hee, who works as a self-styled "madame" in a syndicate of "coffee shops" where men come by day and by night to buy coffee, colas and yogurt drinks for her hostesses and to fondle them behind blacked-over windows. If she and her girls do not attract enough business, the syndicate bosses send her on to another shop in another town. She tells her parents that she works in a factory.

The best moments of The Shadow in the Sun dramatize the churning social upheavals that have led to political gridlock. In the pell-mell rush to build export-oriented industries, successive military rulers crushed unions to keep wages low. Then, to help contain the resulting urban discontent, they enforced artificially low food prices, triggering a mass movement of farmers to the cities. More than 400,000 flock to Seoul alone every year, and some 70 percent of the population now lives in cities of 50,000 or more, compared with 40 percent in 1970.

Depicting South Korea as "a nation of people away from home," Shapiro introduces us to migrants from the countryside who had settled in Sanggye, a slum colony on the edge of Seoul, only to find one winter morning that their concrete-block houses were being razed to make way for high-rise apartments. Thugs armed with iron pipes moved in with the wrecking crews to chase them away. When church groups helped them to buy a tract of land for a new colony, they built temporary shelters there, only to be told that temporary housing was forbidden. So they dug deep pits lined with sleeping bags, covered with tarpaulins and heated with kerosene stoves, where they lived huddled together until spring.

At the Greenhill Textile Company, 130 women made sweaters for $300 a month, working from 8:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, with a half-hour lunch break, six days a week. The women lived in low-ceiling dormitories, three to a room, with no windows. "The only window was in the bathroom," Shapiro writes, "and that is where most of the 22 bodies were found on the morning after the fire."

Visiting the site of the tragedy, Shapiro learned that the owner had not bothered to provide an emergency exit or fire-fighting equipment. He quotes from the diary of a young woman nicknamed Sammi, whose diary was found in a pile of burned cloth next to a stairwell. Sammi wrote about the confusion and purposelessness of a life far from her village, of a futile love affair, and of the sweltering factory: "I hate everyone, I hate older brother, Mom, older sister, all those who abandoned me here. They think that I will live comfortably, but inside I feel empty."

As Shapiro explains, for most people in South Korea "home" is not really a village but is defined in terms of bitter regional rivalries. Kyongsang in the southeast, where the ancient Silla dynasty ruled, controls the armed forces and much of the economic and political power; Cholla in the southwest, site of the Paekche kingdom, fights to escape from its assigned status as the permanent loser.

For the Cholla industrial workers living in the Kyongsang city of Inchon, recalls Shapiro, "you could find home at the ballpark, in the cheap seats, right next to the riot policemen, who waited stony-faced for the fighting to begin." The fighting did begin promptly after Inchon's cheerleader led derogatory chants against the visiting Cholla team, bellowing "the equivalent of 'Cholla sucks,' to which the Cholla people responded in kind."

It was the bitter split between the Cholla-based opposition leader, Kim Dae Jang, and Kim Young Sam, his Kyongsang rival for opposition leadership, that opened the way for Roh's election and more recently for Kim Young Sam's defection to the government camp. As public disgust with their jousting for power has grown, the two Kims have increasingly "seemed like old vaudevillians performing long after vaudeville had died." But Shapiro finds more respected, if more tragic, opposition figures among the leaders of Kukminryon and other mass movements operating outside the electoral competition.

Kim Keun Tae spent three years in jail for possessing Maurice Dobb's Capitalism: Yesterday and Tomorrow, which the prosecution claimed "advanced the interests of North Korea." He was also charged with organizing and attending eight meetings "feared to cause social unrest." When Amnesty International protested, the National Police Agency's Anti-Communism Bureau stopped the electric shock and water torture sessions. But a year after his release, Kim was back in hiding, and on June 2, 1990, he was imprisoned again for leading a campaign against the arbitrary powers exercised by the Defense Security Command and the Agency for National Security Planning, a Korean-style CIA and FBI combined. SHAPIRO FAILS in his effort to give the book a unifying theme by emphasizing han, which he describes much too loosely as the pervasive bitterness resulting from "injustices perpetrated by, among others, parents, friends, siblings, a colonial ruler, an occupying army, past governments, the present government . . ." In seeking to apply the elusive concept of han to many of his vignettes, he stretches it beyond its correct meaning, since han can only be accumulated over generations, not in the lifetime of one person.

In his most appropriate usage of this terms, he speaks of "the nation's great collective bitterness -- the han of being hopelessly split in two." However, one of the weaknesses of an otherwise perceptive book is his shallow treatment of the meaning of the unification issue to South Koreans.

While he dutifully records what students and others say about Korea as "a pawn in the game between East and West," Shapiro clearly does not tune in on nationalist feelings. Yet the hunger for a way to break out of the North-South division explains, at bottom, the anti-Americanism that he often seems to find inexplicable. It is frustrated nationalism that underlies the despair of the South Korean martyrs, described so graphically in his book, who burn themselves to death in symbolic protest and tenaciously endure the tender mercies of the Anti-Communism Bureau.

Selig S. Harrison is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of numerous books.