When I first came across Richard Kim’s “The Martyred” in 1967, I was an intellectually adventurous and emotionally vulnerable college freshman. At the time, I was intrigued and mesmerized by the novels of Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
“The Martyred,” too, was a thought-provoking novel that resonates with Camus’s nihilistic existentialism and saturated with a philosophical rigor comparable to Dostoevsky.
The story of is set in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, during the early stages of the Korean War. Fourteen Christian ministers are arrested by the North Korean communists. Among them, 12 are executed and two released: Rev. Shin, who is older and psychologically tormented after witnessing the execution of his colleagues, and Rev. Han, who is younger and becomes insane due to his mental shock over the horrible incident.
After the South Korean troops occupy Pyongyang, Col. Chang, chief of Army intelligence, orders the narrator Capt. Lee to investigate the incident, in which the two have mysteriously survived.
Chang intends to use the incident for purposes of political propaganda by making the 12 clergymen into heroic martyrs whose execution by North Korean communists exemplify the regime’s ruthless persecution of Christians.
Initially, Chang suspects that Rev. Shin denounced God and betrayed his 12 fellow ministers in order to avoid the execution. Soon, however, he learns that this is not the case. A captured North Korean intelligence major reveals that it was not Rev. Shin, but the 12 others who betrayed God and begged for mercy, pathetically sniveling. He says that he let Rev. Shin go because he had the courage to defiantly refuse to denounce God despite his imminent death. He also let Rev. Han live because he became insane after witnessing the shocking turn of the event.
Not knowing the truth, angry Christians shout, “Judas!” to Rev. Shin and even try to lynch him because they believe he is a betrayer of his faith and fellow clergymen. They want to take revenge for the deaths.
Yet, Rev. Shin refuses to unveil the truth and protects the honor of the twelve ministers by telling the people that they were heroic martyrs who died bravely and it was he who betrayed them.
When I first read the novel in my adolescent years, I understood it as a moving examination of the theological and existential agonies of a man thrown into an absurd situation. I was very much impressed by the magnanimity and decency of Rev. Shin who is thoughtful enough to protect the honor of the 12 clergymen, even though they were not martyrs at all. I admired Shin’s true Christian spirit of sacrificing himself for sinners in times of crisis. Shin silently endures as he is constantly bombarded by false accusations and relentless, unjust criticism.
While rereading “The Martyred” lately, however, I have found there is much more to it. This time, I understand the novel as the story of an eye-opening process of the young narrator Capt. Lee, a former romantic and a college lecturer who naively believes that there is a clear distinction between good and evil, or between truth and untruth. But the shocking reality he finds during his investigation makes him realize that appearances can be deceptive and the distinction between good and evil can be blurry. He also comes to know that truth can be painful and complex, oftentimes beyond one’s comprehension.
While investigating the tragic incident, the narrator Capt. Lee unravels the mystery of the two survivors and finds painful moral issues involved in it. Contrary to the popular belief, it turns out to be that the 12 clergymen died in a cowardly fashion, denouncing God and their faith in order to escape execution.
Between Col. Chang who wants to advertise the 12 executed ministers as “the martyred” despite the truth and Christian extremists who try to lynch innocent Rev. Shin, the narrator agonizes.
Caught in between the two, the narrator comes to realize that there is another war going on in Korea during the Korean War, that is to say, an invisible war waged by self-righteous people who blindly hate others who they think are morally and ideologically wrong. In that war of bigotry and vengeance, self-righteous and stubborn people brutally attack innocent, decent men like Rev. Shin, thereby making him another kind of “martyred” person.
I come to realize that the novel reflects the grim landscape of contemporary Korean society, sharply divided by the extreme ideologies of self-righteous people who accuse and condemn each other as traitors. Under the circumstances, extremists wrongfully criticize and attack innocent, decent people out of hate and resentment.
Seven decades have passed since the Korean War and it is a shame and embarrassing that the same type of invisible war is still going on in today’s South Korea. Rereading Kim’s novel in 2019, I wonder and ponder: “In our society, who are the martyred and who are not?”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.