Yohan's sins, and the efforts of his younger brother Yosop to atone for them, form the core of South Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong's provocative 2001 novel The Guest, which has just been published in English for the first time. Hwang, one of South Korea's most famous writers, spent five years in prison for a 1989 trip to Pyongyang, flouting a ban on unauthorized contact with the North. He was pardoned by President Kim Dae Jung, but a stint in jail clearly failed to dent his taste for controversy. The Guest, the title of which is a translation of the Korean term for the imported disease of smallpox, describes what Hwang sees as the pernicious influence of "cultural imperialism" on Korea. He focuses on a massacre that took place in late 1950 in North Korea's Hwanghae Province. North Korean authorities claim this event was the work of bloodthirsty American soldiers. Hwang disputes that, arguing that it was carried out by Korean factions aligned with the South and the North. Hwanghae, he writes in the introduction, "was the setting of a fifty-day nightmare during which Christians and Communists—two groups of Korean people whose lives were shaped by two different 'guests'—committed a series of unspeakable atrocities against each other."
Hwang describes those atrocities with a subtle power. He takes the reader to the edge of a gruesome scene, then steps back and focuses on the sort of mundane detail that sticks in one's mind more firmly than any blood-splattered image. Describing the immolation of suspected communist sympathizers—women and children included—in an air raid shelter, he focuses with almost casual detachment on the sound of slaughter: "Suddenly a muffled, moaning sound, kind of like the 'oooh' a crowd of people might make, rose up all around us like some sort of wind—and then, all at once, we were engulfed in flame."
Hwang highlights the obvious truth that outside powers have inflicted great harm upon Korea, playing a major role in its painful division. But to a foreign reader his apparent conviction that the malign influence of Westerners should absolve Korean participants of their own guilt in the bloodshed is perplexing. This sentiment—it could be summed up as "the foreign devils made them do it"—may be comforting to Korean readers eager to overcome the burdens of their tortured history. But Hwang's determination to smooth over the ugliness of the past may doom his book to a far less enthusiastic reception abroad than it earned at home.