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Book review: Hawon Jung – Flowers of Fire

Cover art for Flowers of FireIt’s often the case that non-fiction books about South Korea are heavy going, being written by and for the academic community. Books on social justice and gender issues are not exempt from this unfortunate trait, sometimes even doubling down on the academic language: I have rather too many books in this subject area sitting on my bookshelves that are only partially read because they are, frankly, unreadable.

Rest assured, Hawon Jung’s Flowers of Fire does not fall into this category. It’s more readable than the novel Kim Ji-young Born 1982 and covers more ground. Reading Cho Nam-joo’s bestselling novel, written at times in a very factual style, can feel like forcing down medicine that you know is doing you good but which doesn’t taste very pleasant. Jung’s deeply-researched book is a real page-turner, stimulating and informing the reader in equal measure.

The author is a former Seoul correspondent for the Agence France-Presse news agency who covered Korea’s #MeToo movement, and the two Koreas more broadly, from the ground in Seoul. The title of the book references the Korea word for flame – 불꽃 – which literally means “fire-flower”. As emerges in one section of the book, women in the male-dominated Korean business environment are thought of as “flowers” whose presence at an after-hours drinking session “lightens the mood”. Using a technique not dissimilar from the Megalia feminist website which turns misogynist language back on the aggressors, Jung’s choice of title suggests that these delicate flowers are fighting back.

The BBC has, in the past few years, covered some of the darker aspects of Korean society. A few years ago Stacy Dooley presented a sensitive TV documentary on the molka hidden camera epidemic (still available on iPlayer) and currently Chloe Hadjimatheou is presenting a six-part radio series on the shocking scandal centred on the Burning Sun nightclub in Gangnam. These incidents are part of a bigger picture of misogyny which is not unique to Korea. But when taken together with other widely reported news items such as the Gangnam Station femicide and the stories of abuse and molestation in the arts and entertainment world which seem to keep surfacing the problem sadly seems to be prevalent there. The author found herself asked by readers around the world whether there was an English language book that laid out the full extent of the issue in Korea. As there wasn’t one, Jung decided to write it herself – and very welcome it is, covering all the above ground and more.

The book opens with the message that prosecutor Seo Jihyun posted on the bulletin board for fellow prosecutors detailing the sexual assault she had suffered at the hands of a senior male colleague. This was the episode which ignited Korea’s #MeToo movement. Starting from here, the book covers a wide range of gender-related issues, focusing on the people who suffered this discrimination and abuse, in the light of which it is hardly surprising that, as described in the later chapters, trends such as the 4B movement have emerged, exacerbating Korea’s birthrate problem. The author highlights how in the past the abortion laws have been used to regulate the birthrate: at one point when Korea had the perceived problem of too high a population growth, “doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions per every live birth – one of the highest rates of abortion ever recorded in the world” (p241). The recent anti-feminist backlash, which featured as an electoral trend in the most recent presidential election. is also covered.

A minor complaint: given the extensive research that went into this book, its usefulness would have been enhanced by an index to assist readers coming back to the book who want to refresh their memories on particular incidents or campaigns and explore the external references further. But don’t let that quibble deter you: go out and buy this book.

Hawon Jung: Flowers of Fire
BenBella Books, 2023, 272pp

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