Korea map
Map of Korea. Image source: yourchildlearns.com

In high school, I took a history class called China, Japan and Korea. Or maybe that was the title of our textbook. The salient details have escaped me.

I had forgotten how close these countries are and how long their history of meddling in each other’s affairs.

two korea’s

In a recent interview by the Financial Times, I learned of the North Korean defector, Hyeonseo Lee. Lee is an assumed name taken on to protect relatives back home. She escaped from North Korea by walking across the frozen Yalu River into China at age 17. For the next 10 years, Lee was held by Chinese gangsters. In the end, she escaped from a Chinese brothel in Shenyang into South Korea.

Now 36 years old, Hyeonseo Lee has appointed herself as spokesman for her fellow North Koreans. Her memoir The Girl with Seven Names speaks of her time hiding in China. Her Ted Talk focuses on the contrasts between North and South Korea.

japan, good

Korea movie poster
The Handmaiden. Image source:rogerebert.com

The Handmaiden is a 2016 South Korean film, a true erotic thriller. A Korean girl arrives to serve as personal servant to an emotionally instable Japanese noblewoman. The plot involves plenty of cons and double crosses, enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Set in 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation, I expected the movie to follow a familiar dialectic. Occupier: bad; occupied: good. In The Handmaiden, however, Japanese culture is the epitome of refinement. And the only way for a Korean man of ambition to get ahead is to pretend to be Japanese.

Japan officially annexed Korea in 1910. Japanese rule was harsh. Yet it also brought development to the Korean peninsula.

These included rapid urban growth, the expansion of commerce, and forms of mass culture such as radio and cinema, which became widespread for the first time. Industrial development also took place, partly encouraged by the Japanese colonial state, although primarily for the purposes of enriching Japan and fighting the wars in China and the Pacific rather than to benefit the Koreans themselves.

Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, “Korea as a Colony of Japan, 1910-1945” in Asia for Educators

Taiwan experienced a similar leap forward as a result of the Japanese occupation (1895-1945). The Japanese brought schools, infrastructure and industry to an island long neglected by China. Today, the billboards in Taiwan point to Japan as the arbiter of good taste. In Taipei, the department store shop girls line up to greet you just as they do in Tokyo.

japan, bad

Korea movie poster
The Age of Shadows. Image source: imdb.com

The Age of Shadows is another 2016 South Korean film. Set in the 1920’s, a small band of Koreans plots to overthrow the Japanese overlord. Their leader is a former general in the Korean army. His followers are brave, naive and hopelessly outnumbered.

The central character is Korean police captain Lee. As a young man, he was a member of the resistance. Since then, Lee has gone over to the Japanese. Or has he?

The Koreans in this film inhabit the moral grey zone. They’re traitors or informers, by choice or through torture. They may betray each other yet they are at heart likable people. It’s the Japanese who are the truly bad guys.

the line

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel by Richard Flanagan. It’s a savage account of a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Railroad. What the prisoners called the Line.

For good reason, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line. Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity. Or perhaps only one sort: the men who survived the Line.

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Penguin 2013)
Korean guard
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Image source: penguin.com.au

Flanagan dedicates his novel to his father, prisoner sanbyaku san jiu go (335), a survivor of the Line. It’s tempting to think we know where this author’s sympathies lie. There are countless depictions of cruelty, degradation, utterly pointless deaths.

Sometimes the Japanese officers who run the camp are at fault. Or, it’s the Korean guards who do their dirty work. One guard takes an unholy delight in his power over the prisoners. He is a monster they call the Goanna.

Some said the Goanna had vitiligo and that was why he was mad, and others just said he was mad and best avoided in any situation. A few said he was the devil himself – inexplicable, unavoidable, pitiless, and also, on the odd occasion, as if in a final torment, bewilderingly kind.


good and evil

Flanagan is a subtle writer. He shows us the good and evil that reside in us all, an unknowable, constantly shifting potion. After the war, the Allies arrest the Goanna. They sentence him to death and he cannot fathom why.

At the age of fifteen he heard the Japanese were hiring guards to work in prisoner-of-war camps elsewhere in the empire. The pay was fifty yen a month. His thirteen-year-old sister had signed up with the Japanese to go to Manchukuo to work as a comfort woman for similar pay. She told him she would be helping soldiers in hospitals and, like him, was very excited. As she could neither read nor write, he had never heard from her again, and now that he knew what comfort women did, he tried not to think about her, and when he did, he hoped for her sake that she was dead.



Comfort women existed throughout Asia wherever the Japanese army set foot. The Japanese chief of staff for the Shanghai Detachment requested its first shipment of comfort women in 1932.

Okamura later said he was pleased to see that soldiers’ rape of Chinese women decreased after the arrival of women from Japan.

Paul H. Kratoska, editor, Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire (NUS Press 2006)
Korean comfort woman
Comfort women monument Shanghai. Image source: koogle.tv

Shanghai is home to the first military brothel in Japanese-occupied Asia: No. 1 Lane 125 on East Baoxing Road. Activists Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei had hoped to open a museum there. Statues of two girls – one Korean and the other Chinese – now bear witness at the Shanghai Normal University.

Those comfort women did not ask to come to Shanghai. Yet, for many others, Shanghai was a place of refuge. The lovers in The Handmaiden flee Japan to find safety in Shanghai. The resistance fighters in The Age of Shadows abandon Seoul for Shanghai to regroup. In the 1930s and 40s, Shanghai was one of the few places on earth that admitted stateless Jews. Borders that open and close like pores on skin.

porous borders

Hyeonseo Lee’s dream, aside from the reunification of North and South Korea, is:

[T]o build an NGO to stop the trafficking of desperate North Koreans in China as brides and sex-workers. She estimates that about 30,000-40,000 of the 200,000 North Korean defectors hiding in China are sex slaves.

And so we come full circle. A porous border. A place of refuge and abuse. A legacy of trafficking that goes back forever.