2017 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
first place, senior essay division
Looking Out for Number One
For most people, the idea of living under a series of repressive foreign occupiers sounds like something out of a dystopian novel. However, for the citizens of Korea, this was their reality in the first part of the twentieth century. In the short story “Kapitan Ri,” Chon Kwangyong explores the effect of this foreign subjugation on the Korean psyche through his protagonist, a physician named Yi Inguk, M.D. Dr. Yi uses a strategy of ingratiating himself with the foreign occupiers as a means of personal survival. He does this by embracing each occupier’s language and culture and by using his medical expertise to curry favor. Kwangyong portrays Dr. Yi as at best a sycophant and at worst a traitor, who sacrifices his family and community as well as his Korean identity to advance his own interests. In doing so, Kwangyong explores the meaning of literacy, social status, and cultural solidarity in modern Korea.
As a contemporary reader in the United States, the story of Dr. Yi seems remote and unlikely. Living in a secure country, it would be easy for me to judge Dr. Yi unfairly. However, from my perspective as an African-American, I believe that the subjugation of Black people in the United States provides a ready parallel to assess Dr. Yi’s story and that he can be equated with an “Uncle Tom” in the American tradition. The Uncle Tom figure patterns himself after his white patrons and separates himself from his own community’s culture and welfare. As such, he is reviled as a traitor because he acts to the collective detriment of his people. In similar fashion, Dr. Yi caters to elite Japanese clientele at his hospital clinic, while turning away his own countrymen (Kwangyong, 52). He dresses in Japanese style, receives an award as a model Japanese citizen, and forgets how to speak in Korean (Kwangyong, 57-59). The Uncle Tom does not give white patrons mere lip service in order to trick them, like the clever Brer Rabbit of the folklore tradition (Prahlad, 1046). Instead, the Uncle Tom casts his lot with his white overseers and is servile and submissive to them. (Prahlad, 1295-96). In the same way, the obsequious Dr. Yi reconstitutes himself in the image of his foreign overlords for his own personal gain without regard to the consequences for others.
It is likely that a Korean who also had to survive during this period would judge Dr. Yi in a similar manner as myself. Such an individual would likely be unforgiving of a collaborator who betrays other Koreans in the process. Dr. Yi would be condemned for putting his greed for money and status above the welfare of his countrymen. Even the most cynical collaborator could find ways to deceive the foreigners and help other Koreans, whether out of sincerity or to hedge his bets. Instead, Dr. Yi is an opportunist without personal or cultural loyalties, who knows no limits even with his own children. He sends his son to Russia for indoctrination and names his daughter Namiko after Japanese custom (Kwangyong, 53). He treats his wife’s death at an internment camp as collateral damage for which he bears no responsibility. (Kwangyong, 53, 56). No self-respecting contemporary in Korea would approve of this behavior.
In fact, Korean culture celebrates heroes who defy social norms and outsmart their so-called betters. For example, The Story of Hong Gildong, a Korean classic, presents an anti-hero who rebels against his lower social status as an illegitimate son and becomes a powerful king. Gildong Hong becomes a hero because he uses his talents and super-powers not only to transcend his social position, but also to share the wealth with his compatriots (Minkook, Interview). Dr. Yi, on the other hand, serves as a foil to Gildong Hong because Dr. Yi’s quest for status is achieved dishonorably at the expense of his countrymen. With folklore heroes such as Gildong Hong embedded in the popular mindset (Minkook, xx), a contemporary Korean would have little sympathy for a selfish collaborator like Dr. Yi. Furthermore, a contemporary Korean or his family members might well have suffered or been betrayed under the occupying regimes.
If Dr. Yi has any redeeming qualities, they can only be seen when we recognize our own faults and our own desire for status. His positive qualities are persistence, intelligence and a gritty determination to survive, along with a facile mastery of foreign languages. He also has some affection for his family. It is possible that his desire to travel to the United States arises from love for his daughter and not self-interest. Perhaps he does not want to lose his relationship with her, even though he disapproves of her Western fiancee (Kwangyong, 54). On the other hand, he could be traveling there just to further his own interests, consistent with past practices. He has made a career of adapting to cultural usurpers, so now that the Americans are in ascendence, he masters English with a tutor and ingratiates himself with the American embassy. (Kwangyong, 71). Hence, the redeeming qualities of Dr. Yi are elusive and ambiguous.
Finally, in passing judgment on Dr. Yi, we can reflect on several themes that emerge. In creating this turncoat figure, Kwangyong is exploring the meaning of literacy, social status and cultural solidarity in modern Korea. Literacy in multiple languages has been a historical means of gaining social status in Korea, and Dr. Yi exemplifies the use of language acquisition for personal advancement (Cadavid, 32-33). Just as Gildong Hong is a national archetype for a courageous hero (Minkook xx), Yi Inguk, M.D. can serve as a national archetype for a petty villain, driven by greed and expediency. In characterizing him, Kwangyong highlights the cumulative choices that can lead to social or cultural bankruptcy. By placing the blame on the fictional Dr. Yi, Kwangyong gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own values.
Cadavid, Francisco, “The Struggle for Literacy in Korea: An examination of literacy and the power of language in Korea, 1392-1945.” Columbia University MA Thesis. April 19, 2012. Web. January 24, 2017.
Kang, Minsoo, “Interview Questions about Gildong Hong.” Personal interview response via email to Dante Kirkman. November 7, 2016.
Kang, Minsoo, trans. The Story of Hong Gildong. New York: Penguin Classics, 2016. Print.
Kwangyong, Chon, “Kapitan Ri,” Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction, Pihl, Marshall J. and Bruce & Ju-Chan Fulton, trans., eds., New York: Routledge/East Gate Books, 2007. Print.
Prahlad, Anand, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, Volume 3. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006. Print.