Your Republic Is Calling You
by Young-ha Kim
Reviewed by Scott F. Parker
Raised and trained in Pyongyang, Kim Song-hun moved to Seoul in 1984 as a North Korean spy, assuming the identity of Ki-yong, a seventeen-year-old orphan who had recently disappeared. Now, more than two decades later, after thinking himself forgotten by his superiors, Ki-yong receives a coded message ordering his return to Pyongyang the following morning. Thus he finds himself "standing at a fork in the road of his life. Which should he choose, the North or the South?" The action of Your Republic Is Calling You is contained in a single day as Ki-yong considers his options and attempts to determine his future.
The title is intentionally vague, because while the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is literally calling Ki-yong, the Republic of Korea is also calling him. The South, after all, is where he's lived, had a career, married, and raised his teenage daughter. As flawed as his relationships with his wife and daughter are, Seoul is home now and he doesn't want to give up this life. But he's torn because he cannot authenticate the missive or divine its purpose: is it a trap, and if so, whose? Is it a test of allegiance, and if so, allegiance to the North or the South? "Will I have to go back? Will I be safe if I go? Will I even be able to decide whether to go or not? Why would I go back? No, I can't. I can't. I can't go back."
In having his life split equally between South and North, Ki-yong embodies the divide of the Korean people. The pervasive feeling on the peninsula is that there is one Korea, and though they are separated from their families by forces seemingly beyond their control, deep down they are one people. As Ki-yong deliberates on his choice we get some historical perspective on the separation between the two countries and read that "in the 1980s, when Ki-yong was in college, South Korea was closer to North Korea than it was to today's South." This shocking contrast serves as a reminder of how quickly the "Asian Tigers" have advanced and how much wider than the DMZ the distance between the countries has become.
One of the novel's major themes is living with the consequences of one's choices. Ma-ri, Ki-yong's wife, in particular, wonders when her life became as ordinary as it did, and imagines "some invisible hand that secretly twisted her life and derailed it from success." But individual agency is largely subsumed by wider forces. History is fate in Your Republic Is Calling You, and Kim is adept at pointing out the ironies fate produces for life in both Koreas: in the North, where Juche Ideology teaches that "humans have creativity, consciousness, and independence, and decide their own fate," no one is free from the state; in the South, where there is freedom to pursue happiness, there is "lifelessness and defeatism. Indiscriminate weariness [is] prevalent."
As a boy, Ki-yong receives this wisdom from his father: "Don't be a fish; be a frog. Swim in the water and jump when you hit ground." This is invaluable advice for a future spy, but it's helpful for anyone in a world where self-determination is overwhelmed by worldly forces. Given the fact that "one must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one has lived," the latter -- in this novel at least -- seems more realistic. Ki-yong's paranoia about whom to trust and who's watching him is totally justified and never fully understood.
Though the prose is unexceptional and description sometimes lacking, Kim is worth reading for his ability to condense complicated societal forces into a coherent and fast-moving story. Your Republic Is Calling You is his third novel to be translated into English -- his debut novel, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, was translated in 2007 to great acclaim -- and he is hugely successful in Korea, so we should expect and eagerly await more English versions of his many works of fiction.