Monday, September 21, 2009

Heinz Insu Fenkl: Seeing North Korea and South Korea through comics

Korean-American author, Korean literature scholar, and anthropologist Heinz Fenkl Insu has posted some fascinating translations of North Korean and South Korean comics (manhwa) at his website.

His evocative introduction to "Great General Mighty Wing" posted at Words Without Borders: The Online Journal of International Literature, reveals historical and symbolic contexts of the comics. Fenkl writes North Korean comics remind him of the South Korean comics he read during his childhood in South Korea of the 1960's:
I grew up in South Korea in the 1960s during the Park Chung-hee years, back in the day when comic books, or manhwa, were classified as one of the great social evils along with alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, and prostitution. I lived in a neighborhood in Korea’s largest camp town, just outside the American Army base called ASCOM, so I witnessed the full range of these social evils, sometimes on a daily basis. But I was only a kid, and I generally avoided the other social evils by hanging out at the local manhwabang, the "comic book room," a neighborhood institution where all the young local delinquents—mostly teenage thugs and schoolboys playing hooky—could be found.

South Korea called itself a democracy in those days, though it was a tenuous one that technically became a military dictatorship the year my family left, 1972, when Park installed the Yushin Constitution and disbanded parliament. He had taken power through the May 16th "bloodless" coup in 1961 while student protests were destabilizing the interim administration after the downfall of Syngman Rhee.

In the 1960s, Korea was still recovering from the devastating civil war that had left the country split in two and forever separated nearly ten million families. The South saw the North as a nation of fanatical Reds ruled by a megalomaniacal dictator whose major ambition was to infiltrate assassin spies below the DMZ and destabilize the struggling, peace-loving, capitalist, democratic counterpart. The atmosphere in the South was constantly tense, based on both a perceived and real threat. In the 1968 assassination attempt on Park, known as "The Blue House Raid," thirty-one infiltrators came within sight of Park’s residence. The national manhunt that ensued after their botched mission resulted in the deaths of sixty-eight South Koreans and three Americans. In 1974, in another attempt, a North Korean assassin missed him and killed Park’s wife. Ironically, it was a member of Park’s own KCIA that finally assassinated him in 1979...

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