Originally Published as 빛의 제국 in 2006
English translation published in 2010
Foreign film importer Kim Ki-Yong is a family man with a wife and daughter. Living a prosperous life in Seoul, South Korea, he’s an aficionado of Heineken, soccer, and sushi. But he is also a North Korean spy who has been living among his enemies for twenty-one years. Then, after more than a decade of silence from the home office, he receives a mysterious email stating that he has one day to return to headquarters. But is the message really from Pyongyang—or has he been discovered? And if the message is real, is he being called home to receive new orders or to be executed for a lack of diligence?
Spanning the course of a single day, Your Republic Is Calling You delves deep into a gripping family secret to ask whether we ever truly know the people we love. Mining the political and cultural transformations of South Korea since the 1980s, author Young-ha Kim confronts moral questions on small and large scales.
This blog is dedicated to reviewing mystery and crime fiction but occasionally I find myself covering a book that doesn’t easily fit a genre label. Your Republic Is Calling You is one such story, being very difficult to summarize effectively with just a single phrase or sentence.
While the main character of this novel has been committing a crime for over twenty years, this book is really not a mystery or crime novel. It is not the focus of the narrative, nor of the themes it develops. Instead it is a starting point for an exploration of identity and family relationships on the micro-scale and of the development of Korean national identities, perspectives on history and cultural destiny over the course of thirty years.
Given that, you may wonder why I have chosen to write about it here. One reason is that I learned about this novel in a list of the best crime stories set in South Korea and I have seen it shelved as mystery fiction on Goodreads. I began reading it with the assumption that it would be a thriller and was sufficiently interested in the situation and characters to continue reading to finish the book once I realized my error.
The book introduces us to Ki-Yong, a businessman living in Seoul who imports movies from overseas to distribute to Korean theaters. He is successful enough to live comfortably but his business is pretty small, not being helped by a full-time employee scaring off any new hires with his habits of watching porn in the office. He is married to Ma-Ri who he had met at college when they were both members of a socialist student organization and they have a teenage daughter, Hyon-Mi, who seems to be doing well at school. He may not be rich but he seems to have a comfortable middle class lifestyle.
Then one morning he logs into his workstation at the office and discovers a coded message telling him that he must return to North Korea within twenty-four hours. This forces him to assess his life and consider his own identity while trying to understand the reasons for his recall and get his affairs in order. Meanwhile his wife is questioning what she wants when she meets her young lover in secret and he proposes they invite a male friend to join them and his daughter as she deals with her own issues with a boy.
I think given this is a mysteries blog it is most appropriate to start by considering those elements that most strongly align with the mystery and thriller genres. Those would be the espionage storyline, the discussion of the maintenance of a false identity (and the fact that anyone who learns that identity becomes a criminal under South Korean law) and the questions concerning the reasons for Ki-Yong’s recall.
The espionage elements were some of the most interesting in the novel. Young-Ha Kim explores the way Ki-Yong prepared for his mission and describes processes well such as the way a drawer might be arranged to spot if someone has tampered with it or messages are passed. I cannot speak to whether these elements are accurate but they struck me as credible and helped me understand how this character was able to serve his role.
I found the parts of the story that address the construction of a new identity and the questions that raises about what is real and what is performance to be both interesting and thought-provoking. For me the most interesting representation of this theme comes in his relationship with another North Korean agent in a sequence in which they share an awkward conversation in his apartment while reflecting on their life there. While those sorts of experiences are far removed from my own, I felt I had little difficulty imagining the emotional state that would create for this character and the questions he would have to wrestle with about whether he was acting or if he has become the persona he created.
The final of those points, the question of why the recall has been issued, is the aspect of the story that comes closest to being a mystery. This question hangs over much of the story and we are encouraged to consider a couple of possible explanations. It is certainly interesting but I would say that it is hardly a focus for the story. Rather this absence of knowledge is presented as an obstacle to Ki-Yong’s decision making, generating considerable feelings of indecision and paranoia in him. An answer is given by the end of the book however and I think it is satisfying, if not particularly surprising.
These genre elements largely serve as the backdrop for the family drama that unfolds in response to these events. While they only directly inform Ki-Yong’s own storyline, I think we come to see that Ma-Ri and Hyon-Mi’s stories are affected indirectly even if the connections are less obvious. For instance, is the breakdown in intimacy between Ki-Yong and Ma-Ri a reflection of his living a manufactured identity or perhaps a reflection of the loss of his youthful zeal as he finds himself assimilating into South Korean society and his values shift.
The author develops some interesting themes and ideas throughout the work but they are not all equally successful. Hyon-Mi’s struck me as a little hard to follow while I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading parts of Ma-Ri’s story. This was not so much a result of the subject matter as the way in which she is objectified both by the characters and in the descriptions. I think this is entirely intentional on the part of the author and designed to make a point but I did not find it those sections in any way enjoyable and felt they dragged on for far too long.
So, where does that leave us? Well, I would not propose reading this novel as a work of mystery or suspense fiction. While some of its most interesting and successful elements draw of ideas from those genres they are not the focus of the book and so it is hard to recommend reading it for those alone though it may interest those who enjoy espionage stories.
Although not all of its ideas are entirely successful, this is a provocative and creative work. Those who enjoy stories that explore complex cultural situations and interpersonal relationships will likely pull more out of this.