Guilt-by-Association and the Wealth Inequality Parable : Paranoia, Exposure, and Inheritance in South Korean Literature


Thomas M. RYAN

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This article examines the literary predecessors of contemporary South Korean wealth inequality critiques, arguing for the inseparability of such parables, particularly Lee Chang-dong’s (Yi Ch’angdong 李滄東) Burning (Pŏning 버닝2018), from a contested tradition of writing about generational poverty and discrimination. Focusing on literary representations of the Cold War-era guilt-by-association system or yŏnjwaje 緣坐制, it draws out the relationship between the anti-communist epistemologies of authoritarian regimes, the right-wing literature of Yi Munyŏl 李文烈, and the leftist-nationalist allegories of Lee, a novelist before his turn to film. United by what Eve Sedgwick has identified as paranoid epistemologies of exposure, these diverse forms of writing revolved around the investigation of the identity of the alleged traitor, often the spectral leftist father blamed for the socioeconomic immobility of his surviving family members. Whether reactionary or subversive, such texts affirmed the inescapability and rigidity of patrilineal inheritance, an understanding of identity and kinship that the feminist works of Ch’oe Yun 崔允 and Pak Wansŏ 朴婉緖 would challenge in two critical ways. First, these works highlighted the mutual constitution of war and domesticity, destabilizing visions of the individual or family as separate from and aligned against the social order; second, they revealed the origins of an enduring Cold War subjectivity of exposure in Korean War-era state apparatuses of identification, drawing attention to the complicity of the act of writing in the perpetuation of the sociocultural structure of the yŏnjwaje even after its legal abolition.


Paranoid Knowledge and the Partisan Father
The Literary Disavowal of the Family
Lee Chang-dong and the Rehabilitation of the Father
Resisting Confession and Identification


  • Thomas M. RYAN Ph.D Candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University.


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