2017 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
second place, senior essay division
Survival and Betrayal: The Contrasting Perspectives Between the Older Korean Generation and Todays's Contemporary Reader
In Kapitan Ri, Yi Inguk survived the many ordeals that occurred throughout 20th century Korean history. From living a privileged life catering to the Japanese elite during the colonialist era, to earning the favor of the Russians in prison, to escaping to the South during the Korean War, one would believe that he was crafty enough to survive in all circumstances. After all, as Dr. Yi said, “When the times are changing, you’ve got to keep your eyes open and take the initiative” (43).
From the contemporary reader’s point of view, Dr. Yi is seen as an individual caught in a struggle for survival. His monologue in prison in particular, gives the reader a more sympathetic perspective on his actions, “They had no place for you, no matter what your talent. Who didn’t cater to the Japs at one time or another? Only a fool rejects the proffered cake. None of us is clean” (66). As a Korean in the Japanese colonialist era, Dr. Yi was already put at a disadvantage. Despite his intellect and competence, he would’ve been overlooked due to being a subject of the colonists. Thus, he had to adapt to the situation by trying to live among the elite, adopting the Japanese culture and catering to a mostly Japanese clientele. Additionally, Dr. Yi redeems himself in prison when he uses his medical expertise to treat the other prisoners. This moment where he utilizes his background to help others ends up propelling him through the ranks until eventually, he gains the favor of the Russian adviser Stenkov and is released, escaping the punishment he was supposed to eventually receive. Thus, a contemporary reader would judge Dr. Yi as an individual who gamed the odds through a combination of using his skills to his advantage as well as luck.
Conversely, the Koreans of the older generation would have mixed views on the outcome of Dr. Yi’s life. Having lived throughout the story’s time period with memories still implanted in their minds, the older generation could even resent Dr. Yi. Some individuals of the older generation may see themselves as Chonsuk from Kapitan Ri; they were the young rebels who wished for Korea’s independence and seethed at the wickedness of the Japanese colonizers, the Korean traitors being no exception. Even to this day, there remains sour sentiments at the memories of colonization. In an effort of cultural assimilation, Koreans were forced to relinquish their language in order to adopt Japanese names and speak the Japanese language. Yet, with an undying loyalty to their country, many still preserved their native language by speaking it in secret. It would’ve been expectedly shameful then, to see a Korean like Dr. Yi who genuinely took up Japanese to the point where “so unfamiliar did he become with Korean that he had found it awkward to express himself in it after Liberation” (59). Thus, the Koreans of the older generation would judge him as a traitor due to him forsaking his cultural identity in order to fit in among the Japanese colonizers.
Thus, there are two contrasting opinions between the contemporary audience and the Korean older generation. The contemporary audience, removed from the direct sufferings that occurred throughout those tumultuous years of Korean history, would judge Dr. Yi as a lucky individual who survived in all circumstances thanks to skills such as his medical expertise. Even though he neglected his Korean identity, it was for the sake of surviving in an era where average Korean citizens were seen as inferior. Meanwhile, the Korean older generation who experienced the repercussions of Japanese colonialism firsthand would see Dr. Yi as a traitor to his nation who escaped from the consequences that he deserved.
The contrasting sentiments between the Koreans of the older generation and the contemporary reader raises a question about this story. Is this a story about a pro-Japanese who escapes the punishment that he rightfully deserved? Or is this a story of survival of a man who wishes to thrive in an environment where he’s automatically put at a disadvantage and his people are openly oppressed? The tone of the story does not lean towards either side of the spectrum; it is not reproachful of the fact that Dr. Yi escaped his punishment, nor does it sound triumphant either about his success in surmounting his obstacles. The themes of the story then, are revealed.
First, a man’s survival may come at the cost of his moral values. In this story, Dr. Yi has given up his loyalty to his nation to serve the Japanese. However, his survival leaves him with bittersweet feelings regarding his loved ones as well, “Suddenly a vision of his daughter Nami and his son Wonshik came to him. He clenched his fists tightly, and his face tensed momentarily as if he were on the brink of a seizure” (72). Survival of an individual comes at a cost - in this case, loyalty to one’s country as well as ties to family. Secondly, survival takes priority when the situation at hand is bleak. Dr. Yi resorted to helping the colonizers not because he genuinely wanted to, but because he saw an opportunity for mobility. This does not necessarily absolve Dr. Yi of his crimes, but it complicates the reader’s judgement of Dr. Yi and provides more reasons to consider for the character’s actions. In my opinion, as a contemporary reader in the U.S. with knowledge about the history of the Japanese colonization of Korea, I personally hold ambivalent thoughts about this story. I hold a perspective that is not shrouded by personal grudges stained by painful memories, yet I am aware about the historical context of the story that makes it difficult to sympathize with a character who helped the oppressors. However, I believe the intent of the story was purposefully made to be ambiguous; it speaks to the innate human desire to survive against all odds while exposing the moral implications that come along with it as a result.