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Gong Ji-young:

This Is Not Freedom, It's the Law of the Jungle


This Is Not Freedom, It's the Law of the Jungle


South Korean writer Gong Ji-young, author of the bestselling novel The Crucible, muses on the dwindling hopes of Korea's younger generation, and what the true source of happiness is.



This Is Not Freedom, It's the Law of the Jungle

By Yi-Shan Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 546 )

"The first thing I noticed when returning home to Korea after seven years abroad was that people were speaking in a much ruder tone, using more aggressive language. People in the streets were walking at a faster pace. When accidentally bumping into or brushing a shoulder against someone on the subway, everyone would just mind their own business and walk on without expressing the slightest apology."

In the beginning, I felt such behavior was very impolite and could not help feeling angry, but after a while, I found that I had become so numb that I wasn't even aware when someone stepped on my foot or bumped into me. They only knew how to keep marching forward, but where to? I didn't know, and they didn't know themselves either…

These are the disillusioned thoughts that go through the mind of Yujeong, the protagonist of Gong's novel Our Happy Time, after reluctantly visiting Yunsu, a convicted murderer awaiting execution on death row.

Gong, who was born in 1963, is one of the most influential contemporary South Korean novelists. Her works have focused on people living on the fringes of society, those who are underprivileged and discriminated against. She has written about the student movement, divorce, laborers, domestic helpers, death row inmates and the hearing impaired, making her readers experience the hard lives of others through literature.

Once, three of her books were on the bestseller list at the same time. Three of her novels have become blockbuster movies. She has also become an influential opinion leader in the online community via Twitter and other social networking platforms where she discusses social issues and other controversial topics.

Her novel The Crucible, published in 2009, tells the true story of deaf children who suffered repeated sexual assault at Inhwa School for the hearing impaired in Gwangju, between 2001 and 2005. The book was adapted into a movie that was released in the United States under the title Silenced in late 2011.

One fifth of the South Koreans went to the movie theaters to "witness" the shocking events that had taken place at the school. The ensuing public outcry prompted prosecutors to reinvestigate the case and the South Korean legislature to amend its sexual crime legislation to allow for heavier punishment for sexual abuse of children under 13 and the disabled. The law is popularly known as the Dogani Law, based on the film's Korean title.

Gong, who has long hair and delicate features, sported an unassuming Western-style jacket and skirt as she met with CommonWealth Magazine for an interview at a Seoul coffee shop. Hailing from an affluent family, Gong admits that before she began to study at university she had no idea that some Koreans were so poor they had to do without food.

Gong grew up during the iron-fisted military dictatorship of South Korean president Park Chung-hee, the father of incumbent president Park Geun-hye. While studying literature at prestigious Yonsei University, she became involved with the brewing democracy movement. Once she even went to jail for participating in a demonstration.

Those times changed Gong's whole life.

"If I eat a meal while a starving person watches me eat, I definitely won't be able to enjoy the meal. Even if the starving person were concealed behind a wall, I would still be able to sense their presence. That's why the endeavor of my life has been to make it possible that the starving person and I eat together," Gong said.

For Gong, writing literature is lending a voice to those "who are enraged over real life but helpless and unable to speak out."

What have economic liberalization and opening, a course that South Korea whole-heartedly embraced in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, brought for the South Koreans? How does Gong, who is a single mother of three children following three marriages and three divorces, evaluate today's South Korea?

Following are highlights from the interview:

Q: The last decade was crucial for South Korea since the country signed free trade agreements with several nations. From the outside, it appears that South Korea whole-heartedly embraced economic liberalization following the Asian financial crisis.

In your eyes, what did the South Koreans gain from liberalization? What did they lose?

A: I am not an economic expert. I can only give you the perspective of an ordinary Korean.

I have personally lived through South Korea's transformation from military dictatorship to democracy, the country's banking system being taken over by the IMF following the Asian financial crisis, and the massive opening of free trade. I firmly believe that a closed society is bound to march toward its demise. It doesn't matter whether it is a group, society or nation, if it is kept closed all the time, it will be doomed.

Therefore, we definitely must march toward opening. Yet on the other side, opening does not mean you won't be doomed. Over the past decade, free trade allowed the South Korean economy to perform very well, but the greatest problem is that it dramatically increased the wealth gap.

When I was a teenager, a person who worked hard made money and was able to enjoy a good life. That was the widely held ideal and belief back then. Now, these ideas have turned out to be illusions. It seems that nothing at all can be expected from the future.

I don't think it's a question of whether an open system is good or bad, but a question of people's philosophy.

Freedom for the Rich

Q: A question of philosophy?

A: Under a free trade regime, the philosophy and ideal of coexistence among people is most important.

In a free trade system, it is still possible to narrow the wealth gap and to provide some social welfare as long as the rich are willing to pay slightly higher taxes. However, the rich are not willing to do that, and they are not willing to pursue coexistence with others either.

Everyone talks about freedom, freedom. And on the surface, this country definitely looks free. But the true meaning of freedom has not been achieved. Freedom has become freedom for the rich. Right now what we call freedom would be more accurately described as the absence of rules, or the law of the jungle.

I believe that freedom still requires state intervention to ensure that citizens' rights are protected. The current freedom leaves many people with a feeling of utter despair, because they feel they won't be able to improve their lives.

No Way Out for the Coming Generations

Q: What is this sense of despair about?

A: Actually, faced with free trade, my generation probably doesn't feel much yet. It's the next generation that will have to shoulder a lot.

My oldest child was born in the 1980s, and is 26 now. I think that about 20 percent of that generation feel incapable of improving their living conditions.

In conversations with my children's friends, I got the impression they feel they have virtually no way out in Korea. They feel that all exits have been blocked. People in the higher rungs of society seem to fear that their own position could be affected, so they block all open passageways to cement their own power.

If nothing improves, South Korea will very likely become a stratified society in ten years.

Young people today are very much attracted to safe jobs such as being a civil servant or a teacher. If things don't work out, many feel let down about their own future. They feel there is no road they can take. They feel dispossessed of their hopes and abilities.

Q: What kind of attitude do you wish to see young Koreans take toward the future?

A: I hope that they first figure out what they want themselves, what their own strengths are, that they give themselves more opportunities instead of giving up so quickly.

First of all, you need to value your own life. Not everyone can have a happy life, but you need to treasure your own life a bit more.

Unhappy Economy, Unhappy Democracy

Q: You just mentioned despair and happiness. As you see it, what exactly are hope and happiness?

A: Hope means that people have the strength to want to live on even if they find themselves in an adverse environment. I believe the people we elect have the responsibility to bring the people hope.

Happiness is a more individual thing. For instance, even though I live in Seoul, there are many places in Seoul I haven't had a chance to take a good look at. However, today I have the opportunity to see a park in springtime through these full-height windows, which makes me very happy.

Happiness means enjoying the moment of experiencing something that you like.

Q: Does that mean that the South Koreans are happy? Many Taiwanese people think the South Koreans must be happy, because their economy is doing well.

A: On the political front, democracy is currently taking a step backwards, so I feel unhappy. The economy is also showing many problems, so in that regard I'm not happy either.

The daughter of the president who subjected me to military education serves as president now, so I'm not happy. Now everyone vents their misgivings on the Internet. That's another thing that makes our ruling party so nervous.

Everyone seems to be very happy because of Korean TV dramas like Man of the Stars. These make people temporarily forget their real problems, just like an injection of pain killer.

Q: Is the painkiller effective?

A: It is.

Because when you hurt, such an injection will make you feel better, although the side effect is that you will put off seeing a doctor for treatment.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz