Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982 by Cho Nam-joo

82 nyeon saeng Kim Ji-young [Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982] by Cho Nam-joo. Seoul: Minumsa, 192 pp., 13,000 won

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - E. Tammy Kim

In Oc­to­ber 2016 the Korean pub­lish­ing house Minumsa re­leased a short novel called Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, the lat­est in a series of works of fic­tion by “to­day’s young writ­ers.” The au­thor is a for­mer tele­vi­sion scriptwrit­er, Cho Nam-joo, born in 1978, who had pub­lished well-re­ceived short sto­ries. She wrote the novel in two months, in­spired by her fa­vorite English-lan­guage writer, Re­becca Sol­nit, and mad­dened by the turns her own life had taken as a Korean woman and the treat­ment she faced as a new mother. One day, while tak­ing a cof­fee break with her baby, she heard male passersby re­fer to her as맘충, or “mom-worm,” a nasty ep­i­thet for moth­ers who have the gall to leave their homes.

The name in the book’s ti­tle, “Kim Ji-young,” is the Korean equiv­a­lent of “Jane Doe,” an ev­ery­woman. The novel has sold a mil­lion copies, one for ev­ery fifty peo­ple in South Korea. It’s been touted by celebri­ties and was given to Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in by an­other prom­i­nent politi­cian. There are plans to trans­late it into eigh­teen lan­guages, in­clud­ing English (the Ja­pa­nese ver­sion quickly be­came a best seller), and it will soon be turned into a film. Park Hye-jin, the ed­i­tor at Minumsa who ac­quired Kim Ji-young, told me that the novel’s virtue lies in its broad so­cial im­pact. It prom­ises that “if we speak up, even qui­etly,” she said, “these is­sues won’t re­vert back to be­ing in­di­vid­ual prob­lems.”

Sev­eral fic­tion writ­ers I spoke with called the book “mid­dling” and “un­in­ter­est­ing” as lit­er­a­ture, yet its very ac­ces­si­bil­ity may be its source of power for many read­ers. The dic­tion is sim­ple, the writ­ing art­less; the world of the novel, told in a ba­sic third-per­son voice, claus­tro­pho­bic. To read the book is to imag­ine be­ing a restive, ag­grieved mil­len­nial and to trace her path through ev­ery­day misog­yny.

It is cu­ri­ous that a book not pri­mar­ily fo­cused on sex­ual vi­olence has be­come a cul­tural touch­stone for Korea’s ver­sion of the Me Too move­ment. But the lo­cal ac­tivism grouped un­der the Amer­i­can la­bel of Me Too must be un­der­stood as a to­tal re­bel­lion against deeply pa­tri­ar­chal, Con­fu­cian struc­tures that, in the dig­i­tal era, have found cruel new forms.

In 2015, two years be­fore the Har­vey We­in­stein rev­e­la­tions in the US, a po­lice crack­down on So­ranet, an il­licit porn site, forced Kore­ans to con­front a ter­ri­ble re­al­ity. Porn is il­le­gal in Korea, and thus ex­changed through un­der­ground net­works—this was noth­ing new—but con­sumers were now down­load­ing count­less images of women and girls that had been ob­tained se­cretly, with­out their con­sent. Re­venge porn and footage from spy cam­eras in women’s bath­rooms and chang­ing rooms were be­ing streamed on smart­phones and bought and sold on var­i­ous web­sites, on a scale few had pre­vi­ously un­der­stood. In 2004, in re­sponse to an ear­lier epi­demic of Peep­ing Tom pho­tog­ra­phy, the gov­ern­ment had banned the dis­abling of the cam­era-shut­ter sound on Korean cell phones. But the reg­u­la­tion was less ef­fec­tive for video. Across the coun­try, it’s com­mon to see women’s bath­room stalls whose ev­ery crack and crevice is plugged with tiny wads of toi­let pa­per.

So­ranet was shut down; other, sim­i­lar sites pro­lif­er­ated. The spy-cam rev­e­la­tions prompted fear and in­dig­na­tion, but not quite a mass move­ment. Though Korean fem­i­nists con­tin­ued to or­ga­nize—against not only re­venge porn and spy-cam pho­tog­ra­phy and video, but also do­mes­tic vi­olence, misog­yny in the me­dia, and the long­stand­ing crim­i­nal­iza­tion of abor­tion and sex work—it would take a mur­der, the fol­low­ing year, to move these con­cerns to the cen­ter of Korean life.

On May 17, 2016, a thir­ty­four-year-old man stabbed a twenty-three-year-old woman to death in the mid­dle of Gang­nam, a crowded, pros­per­ous neigh­bor­hood of Seoul. He had lurked in a pub­lic bath­room out­side a no­rae­bang, a Korean karaoke par­lor, wait­ing for a woman, any woman, to en­ter. When he was ar­rested for the crime, he re­port­edly told the po­lice, “Women have al­ways ig­nored me.” Within days, the glass sub­way en­trance clos­est to the crime scene—Gang­nam Sta­tion, Exit 10—was ren­dered opaque by count­less Post-it Notes bear­ing mes­sages of sol­i­dar­ity: “I am also a twenty-three-year-old woman . . . . How ter­ri­ble to live in fear just for be­ing fe­male.” “I sur­vived by luck. That could’ve been me.” “What hap­pened to you hap­pened to me.” Yerin Moon, a twenty-seven-year-old who works for the Korea Women’s Hot­line, told me that the Gang­nam mur­der turned her into a fem­i­nist: “I’ve prob­a­bly been to seven or eight protests since,” she said. Through the sum­mer and fall of 2016, a con­scious­ness born of out­rage spread among South Korean women and girls, dove­tail­ing with the mass Can­dle­light Move­ment that would bring down Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye.* That Oc­to­ber, Tak Soo-jung, an em­ployee at a pub­lish­ing house, pub­licly ac­cused her for­mer poetry teacher of sex­ual abuse and en­cour­aged other women to speak out on so­cial me­dia. Not all of them iden­ti­fied as fem­i­nist, an af­fil­i­a­tion that at­tracts sus­pi­cion in Korea’s tra­di­tional so­ci­ety, but their ba­sic de­mands—for phys­i­cal safety, equal op­por­tu­nity, and free­dom from op­pres­sive stan­dards of fem­i­nin­ity—were shared and dis­cussed widely. Why, they asked, did men get all the good jobs? Why should women have to do all the par­ent­ing and house­hold chores, and “fix” their faces—that is, get plas­tic surgery—to get ahead? Why should they tol­er­ate be­ing ogled at the of­fice and forced to pour af­ter­work drinks for their male bosses and col­leagues? In Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, the epony­mous hero­ine grows up in an era that is only slightly more en­light­ened than that of her mother, who was ex­pected to quit school and work in a fac­tory to pay her broth­ers’ tu­ition. We meet Kim Ji-young in 2015, on the au­tum­nal hol­i­day of Chuseok, when she is thirty-three years old. Fol­low­ing Korean cus­tom, she and her hus­band and in­fant daugh­ter have gone to visit his side of the fam­ily, and there is no short­age of work—cook­ing, clean­ing, and serv­ing—for the women.

Chuseok tra­di­tion­ally marks the fall har­vest, and though most Kore­ans now live in high-rise apart­ments and buy their kim­chi from the gro­cery store, they still sub­mit to an an­nual rit­ual of in­ter­state grid­lock and glut­tonous meals with rel­a­tives. This year, ex­hausted and pro­voked by her mother-in-law— “Cook­ing to feed your fam­ily? That’s not work! . . . Hey, you’re not tired, are you?”—Ji-young reaches her break­ing point. She lashes out, but qui­etly, with a creepy, placid stare. She im­per­son­ates her own mother and says, sar­cas­ti­cally, to her mother-in-law, “Ac­tu­ally, Ma’am, my dear daugh­ter Ji-young gets sick ev­ery time the hol­i­days roll around.” She ad­dresses her an­gry fa­ther-in-law in the same fash­ion. Ji-young’s em­bar­rassed hus­band apol­o­gizes, clamps his hand over his wife’s mouth, and drags her out to the car. My trans­la­tion and sum­mary are in­ad­e­quate—this may read as stan­dard fam­ily bick­er­ing to a West­ern au­di­ence—but Ji-young’s be­hav­ior rep­re­sents a scan­dalous trans­gres­sion of Korean norms.

What pushes a woman to the brink? When does anger be­gin to look like mad­ness? Chap­ter 2 rewinds to Jiy­oung’s child­hood in a tra­di­tional, Con­fu­cian home: there’s Ji-young, her older sis­ter, younger brother, fa­ther, mother, and pa­ter­nal grand­mother. The fa­ther is a civil ser­vant; the mother cooks, cleans, caters to her mother-in­law, and takes in in­dus­trial piece work (sew­ing, as­sem­bly, and pack­ag­ing) to pad her hus­band’s mea­ger salary. Jiy­oung’s brother is treated like a prince. He gets his own room, eats bet­ter food, and wears finer clothes than his sis­ters. He might, in fact, have had a third older sis­ter, were it not for his mother’s se­cret de­ci­sion to abort a fe­male fe­tus. “Noth­ing was Mother’s choice, but ev­ery­thing was her re­spon­si­bil­ity,” the nar­ra­tor ob­serves. “She was sick, in body and soul, but had no one to com­fort her.” In Ji-young’s crowded el­e­men­tary school, boys eat lunch first, forc­ing girls to rush through a sec­ond­shift meal. In ju­nior high, un­der the pre­text of check­ing uni­forms, pervy teach­ers poke breasts and lift up skirts, and one of Ji-young’s male class­mates be­comes a fright­en­ing stalker. Young women help one an­other, through whis­per net­works and re­bel­lious schemes hatched in the school­yard, but find them­selves blamed by par­ents and teach­ers for be­ing both too weak and too strong. “Why,” Ji-young’s fa­ther yells when he learns of the stalker, is his daugh­ter “such a pro­mis­cu­ous so­cial­izer? Why is her skirt so short?”

We fol­low Ji-young to col­lege and into a job mar­ket with few op­por­tu­ni­ties, all of them sharply gen­dered. In one of the book’s darkly funny scenes, Ji-young at last gets an in­ter­view but finds two iden­ti­cal com­peti­tors in the wait­ing room: “All three have their hair cut to an ear­length bob, pink­ish lip­stick, and dark-grey suits, as if agreed upon in ad­vance.” A male man­ager in­ter­views them to­gether and asks a hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tion: “You’re out to meet with a cor­po­rate client, and a big­wig gets handsy. He rubs your shoul­ders and keeps touch­ing your thigh, you know what I mean. So what would you do?” Ji-young is hor­ri­fied but re­sponds mildly: “I would ex­cuse my­self by go­ing to the bath­room or fetch­ing some doc­u­ments.”

A few days later, when she re­ceives a re­jec­tion by e-mail, she calls the of­fice to ask for feed­back. “It prob­a­bly just wasn’t a good fit,” the hu­man re­sources man­ager tells her. Ji-young hangs up and thinks, “Damn, if I wasn’t go­ing to get it any­way, I should’ve just said what I felt.” She stands in front of a mir­ror and imag­ines her­self back in the in­ter­view, be­ing asked how she would re­spond to the handsy client. “I’d break that son of a bitch’s fuck­ing wrist!” she yells, and then tells the in­ter­viewer, “You’re part of the prob­lem, too. Ask­ing a ques­tion like that is it­self sex­ual ha­rass­ment. You’d never say that to a man!”

Ji-young is even­tu­ally hired as a clerk in a pub­lic-re­la­tions firm, where she loves the work but must deal with the schmooze and booze of Korean cor­po­rate cul­ture. At a dreaded hwaeshik, or af­ter-work gather­ing, a client pours Ji-young one beer af­ter an­other, tells her she’d be even more beau­ti­ful

with dou­ble-eye­lid surgery, and asks if she has a boyfriend. She gets through it with the sup­port of her of­fice men­tor, a fe­male ex­ec­u­tive who has en­dured years of come-ons, as­sumed more than her share of over­time and busi­ness trips, and took just a month off af­ter hav­ing a baby. (Out­side the US this is rightly seen as un­ac­cept­ably brief.) The ex­ec­u­tive fights to ex­tend the ma­ter­nity-leave pol­icy and looks af­ter younger women in the of­fice, but still they quit, over­whelmed by the de­mands of what the Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist Ar­lie Hochschild long ago called the “se­cond shift”: the do­mes­tic la­bor that be­gins “af­ter work.”

Kim Ji-young, too, suc­cumbs to this pat­tern. She mar­ries and gets preg­nant, quit­ting her job to as­sume the role of pri­mary care­giver. When her hus­band re­peat­edly prom­ises to “help out a lot,” her bile rises. “Stop al­ready with the ‘help­ing’ bull­shit,” she says. “You’ll help with chores, you’ll help raise the kid, you’ll help with my work. Is this not your house? Your house­work? Your kid?... You act like you’re do­ing me a huge fa­vor.”

She gives birth to a daugh­ter amid the na­tional epi­demic of spy-cam pornog­ra­phy, in­clud­ing at her old of­fice. Within a year, be­set by child-care du­ties, house­keep­ing chores, bore­dom, and iso­la­tion, she be­comes de­pressed. One day she treats her­self to cof­fee and a stroll in the park with her daugh­ter, only to hear two men mock her—just as hap­pened in the au­thor’s life. The book ends in 2016, af­ter Ji-young’s re­bel­lion on Chuseok, where the story be­gan. She is tak­ing an­tide­pres­sants and see­ing a shrink twice a week, a man who prides him­self on his deep un­der­stand­ing of the fe­male psy­che. His own wife had given up her med­i­cal ca­reer to raise their son and then lost her mind. And yet, when one of his fe­male em­ploy­ees quits in the mid­dle of a dif­fi­cult preg­nancy, he re­solves never again to make such a hire. “Re­gard­less of how good a woman was, the baby is­sue would al­ways be a huge headache,” he thinks. “Next time, it’d be best to re­cruit an un­mar­ried woman.” This is how Cho Nam-joo con­cludes the novel—not in the body of Kim Ji-young, but in the mind of her sex­ist ther­a­pist. Pa­tri­archy gets the last word.

When I was last in Seoul, home to a fifth of South Korea’s pop­u­la­tion, I thought of­ten of Kim Ji-young. The ado­les­cent Ji-youngs rush­ing to school, knap­sacks flap­ping; the twenty-some­thing Jiy­oungs on their lunch break, IDs hang­ing from lan­yards around their necks; the thirty-some­thing Ji-youngs car­ry­ing in­fants up sub­way stair­wells. The book made me re­call a col­league from the early 2000s, when I worked at a Korean mu­seum. She was flu­ent in three lan­guages and just out of a pres­ti­gious post-doc­tor­ate pro­gram, yet was still ex­pected to fetch cof­fee for our boss. In Oc­to­ber, I stopped by a protest at­tended by two hun­dred fem­i­nists, LGBT ac­tivists, and mi­grant work­ers. They car­ried bright pink signs call­ing for a law that would bar dis­crim­i­na­tion based on gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, age, dis­abil­ity sta­tus, and race. As they marched from Gwangh­wa­mun Square, near the pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence, to­ward the Na­tional As­sem­bly, I chat­ted with a so­ci­ol­o­gist who teaches at a lo­cal women’s col­lege. In 2014, she said, hardly any­one signed up for her course on “sex and cul­ture”; since 2016, the class has been over­sub­scribed. Her stu­dents had all read, and raved about, Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, which she re­garded as a use­ful in­tro­duc­tion to fem­i­nist thought. Two years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, the novel was still dis­played promi­nently in book­stores in Seoul and other large Korean cities. On a visit to the Korea Sex­ual Vi­olence Re­lief Cen­ter, one of the first women’s shel­ters in the coun­try, I found a copy squeezed be­tween vol­umes on fem­i­nist the­ory and his­tory. Roh Sun Yi, an or­ga­nizer with the re­lief cen­ter who was her­self born in 1982, said that when she read it for the first time, “It didn’t feel like a novel. It felt like a di­ary. It was as though some­one in­volved in fem­i­nist ac­tivism had writ­ten a book just for us.” New vol­un­teers to Roh’s group are asked to read and dis­cuss the novel as part of their train­ing sem­i­nar.

In Jan­uary 2018, an at­tor­ney named Seo Ji-hyun, who had faced years of re­tal­i­a­tion for re­port­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment and re­buff­ing the ad­vances of Ahn Tae-geun, the for­mer chief of the elite Seoul pros­e­cu­tors’ of­fice, told her story on the nightly news. (Ahn has since been found guilty of abuse of power and sen­tenced to two years in prison.) That Feb­ru­ary, a poem ti­tled “Mon­ster,” by Choi Young-mi, pub­lished in the Hwang­hae Re­view literary jour­nal, went viral. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery Korean news out­let de­scribed the poem as an ac­cu­sa­tion of mo­lesta­tion, co­erced sex, and ha­rass­ment (“He touches ev­ery young girl he sees”) against the poet Ko Un, now eighty-five and long con­sid­ered Korea’s best hope for a No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture.

Other fa­mous men were soon named in the press: the theater di­rec­tor Lee Yoon-taek (who has since been im­pris­oned for sex­ual as­sault), the film di­rec­tor Kim Ki-duk, the ac­tor Cho Jae-hyun, and, per­haps most con­se­quen­tially, Ahn Hee-jung, a lib­eral provin­cial gov­er­nor who was ex­pected to suc­ceed Moon Jae-in as pres­i­dent. Thou­sands of or­di­nary women and men be­gan to in­voke the English-lan­guage hash­tags #MeToo and #WithYou, draw­ing a line from the Gang­nam mur­der and spy­cam porn to Har­vey We­in­stein, Ahn Tae-geun, and Ahn Hee-jung.

On the two-year an­niver­sary of the Gang­nam mur­der last May, a rally for gov­ern­ment ac­count­abil­ity on sex crimes, ini­ti­ated on­line, drew 15,000 peo­ple to the Dae­hangno neigh­bor­hood in cen­tral Seoul. It was among the largest women-cen­tered protests in Korean his­tory and was soon re­peated and eclipsed—some 60,000 peo­ple showed up for a fol­low-up rally in early July, and the protests have con­tin­ued, nick­named 불편한 용기, or “Un­com­fort­able Courage.” (Two ac­tivists I spoke with, though, ac­cused the gather­ing of ex­clud­ing trans women.) In June Shin Ji-ye, a twenty-eightyear-old Green Party leader, ran for mayor of Seoul on an overtly fem­i­nist plat­form, and fin­ished, im­pres­sively, in fourth place. Lee Sun­hee, the di­rec­tor of Face, the Other Side, a doc­u­men­tary about In­ter­net-me­di­ated sex­ual vi­olence, told me, “I’ve been do­ing this ac­tivism for thirty years, and never seen such power and or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

As in the US, how­ever, a cul­tural and le­gal back­lash—in­clud­ing a num­ber of come­back at­tempts and re­tal­i­a­tion in the courts—is un­der­way. I’ve heard many men, in Seoul and New York, joke about which ac­tions might get them “Me Too’d,” and com­plain of be­ing de­nied ac­cess to women-only dis­cus­sions and events. Last sum­mer, Ahn Hee-jung was found not guilty of sex­ual as­sault and sex­ual ha­rass­ment. The tes­ti­mony of his for­mer sec­re­tary, Kim Ji-eun, had clearly shown how a power gap can lead to phys­i­cal and ver­bal abuse of low-rank­ing work­ers, but the court found her tes­ti­mony in­suf­fi­ciently cred­i­ble. Sup­port­ers of Kim filled the streets, hold­ing red signs that read, “Ahn Hee-jung is guilty! #MeToo #WithYou.” An ap­peals court even­tu­ally agreed: on Feb­ru­ary 1, it re­versed Ahn’s ac­quit­tal, sen­tenc­ing him to three and a half years in prison.

Ko Un, the No­bel con­tender, never faced crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion, but he filed a defama­tion suit against Choi Young-mi, claim­ing nearly $1 mil­lion in dam­ages caused by the pub­li­ca­tion of “Mon­ster” and Choi’s sub­se­quent me­dia ap­pear­ances. (A court rul­ing is ex­pected on Feb­ru­ary 15.) Jeon Seong­won, the ed­i­tor who com­mis­sioned Choi’s poem for an an­nual fem­i­nist edi­tion of the Hwang­hae Re­view, stands by the poem. As soon as it came in, he told me, he knew it would stir up an in­tel­li­gentsia long shielded from ac­count­abil­ity: “In Korean so­ci­ety, the literary world holds a sa­cred sta­tus, a hal­lowed place in elite cul­ture.”

Sev­eral months ago, the fic­tion writer Hwang Jungeun pub­lished an es­say ti­tled “Scar” in an­other Korean literary magazine. It is os­ten­si­bly a re­view of Rox­ane Gay’s book Hunger but, as Hwang ex­plains, “Some per­sonal sto­ries de­mand a per­sonal story in re­turn.” As she read Gay’s book, she felt an old trauma rise to the sur­face. In fifth grade Hwang was raped by a cousin about five years her se­nior. “When a woman bears de­tailed wit­ness to an event from three or six or ten years ago, we as­sume it’s an em­broi­dery, a lie or delu­sion, or a cre­ation,” Hwang writes, in a pas­sage that brings to mind Chris­tine Blasey Ford, who ac­cused Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh of sex­ual as­sault. “But I re­mem­ber that night.”

I met with Hwang for a cup of tea in down­town Brook­lyn. Korea’s Me Too, she told me, is a braid of many so­cial jus­tice move­ments, all of them “con­nected through pa­tri­archy.” She said its con­cerns range from the mun­dane (sex­ist text­books, im­bal­anced mar­i­tal ex­pec­ta­tions) to the ex­is­ten­tial (the Gang­nam mur­der), but what’s es­sen­tial is that “women are com­ing to­gether and re­al­iz­ing that what they’d been feel­ing in­di­vid­u­ally is ac­tu­ally much broader, and shared.” I imag­ine the mil­lion Korean copies of Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982 as a kind of mem­ber­ship card or printed creed—proof of a col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence too of­ten de­meaned. In Hunger, Hwang notes, Gay speaks of a body’s “be­fore and af­ter”—of trauma as a di­vid­ing line. The har­row­ing gift of Me Too is the knowl­edge that so many of us, around the world, live in this “af­ter.”

Cho Nam-joo, Seoul, Novem­ber 2018

Pro­test­ers hold­ing signs with phrases heard from Me Too skep­tics, such as ‘Why are you only com­ing for­ward now?’ and ‘A sane woman would’ve quit right away,’ Seoul, Novem­ber 2018

Post-it mes­sages of sol­i­dar­ity near the pub­lic bath­room where a young woman was mur­dered, Gang­nam sub­way sta­tion, Seoul, May 2016

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