The Prisoner

Hwang Sok-yong
The Prisoner

‘Captivating … [Hwang Sok-yong] delivers a vivid depiction of some of the historical currents that shaped Korea in the 20th century.Starred Kirkus review

A breathtaking record of Hwang Sok-yong’s experiences in the prison of time, the prison of language, and the prison of a divided country still stuck in the Cold War. Hwang Sok-yong bears impassioned witness to the turbulence of modern history and the fight for freedom from oppression. Born in Manchuria, Hwang spent his early childhood in Pyongyang until the outbreak of the Korean War, when his family fled to the south with Hwang’s mother carrying him on her back. The death of a friend during the April Revolution of 1960 saw the young Hwang lose direction before joining the Marines and being shipped off to the Vietnam War. Upon returning to South Korea, he took up writing and became involved in activism against Park Chung-hee’s military regime. When the next military junta tried to cover up the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, he fought for the truth to be known. Then, in 1989, he broke the divided peninsula’s greatest taboo by visiting North Korea, an act that shook the establishment. Four years of exile followed, after which Hwang reentered South Korea but was promptly imprisoned and forced to serve a five-year sentence. A life on the frontlines of democracy, and a journey of breaking down barriers: from refugee to visitor, from exile to incarceration.

‘This sweeping, epic account is not just a memoir but rather a knowledgeable, sensitive and informed insight into Korea and its neighbours, as well as a complex, nuanced examination of the Cold War, its geopolitical consequences and its human cost. Hwang Sok-yong moves effortlessly between the personal and the political, and the geopolitical, and like his novels, his concerns are both compassionately individual and passionately global. The Prisoner is also a literary tour de force. Written in the lyrical, elegant style, with powerful acuity and razor-sharp wit that are hallmarks of Sok-Yong’s work, it coaxes the reader to savour images, memorable events, and poignant details while also demanding a comprehensive ethical commitment to freedom, justice, and a moral universe.’ Sunny Singh, author, professor

‘With bold imagery and epic in its scope, his raw, disturbing narrative flashes between personal and political accounts. The writer and activist is seen at the forefront of South Korea’s democracy movement—being incarcerated, protesting military dictatorships, serving as a soldier, and traveling abroad. He also covers the political realities of his divided country, and the machinations of the world powers that are intent on keeping the Koreas divided and subservient. The effects of the Korean peninsula’s politics on its people are at the fore as Hwang documents their perilous fight for freedom and reveals his role in unmasking the realities of life in a divided Korea. The Prisoner is a passionate, detailed memoir about the activist’s “canary in the coal mine” role. It warns that “a society where artists have lost their faculty of criticism and submit unconditionally to power is well on its way to losing its democracy.”’ Foreword Reviews

‘In this sweeping narrative, Korean novelist Sok-yong (Princess Bari) recounts his years as a political prisoner in South Korea and looks back at his lifelong political activism. In 1947, the author’s family fled North Korea to the South as communism tightened its grip on the country. While his parents worked to support the family, a teenage Sok-yong traveled with his friends throughout South Korea and later quit school to join the military. He details how the atrocities he witnessed during his service in Vietnam informed his political writing in the 1970s and ’80s, which played a significant part in fueling the democracy movement in South Korea. Most potent are the recollections of his five years in the Seoul Detention Center, where he was imprisoned following a trip to North Korea in 1993. After years of endless interrogation and isolation, he was pardoned in 1998 as part of a group amnesty effort by the newly elected president. In reflecting on his “life as a writer in the prison of time, language, and this Cold War museum that is the divided Korean peninsula,” Sok-Yong reveals a moving picture of one man’s attempts to live within the ambiguities of freedom. This inspiring account shouldn’t be missed.’ Publisher’s Weekly

‘A captivating depiction of a Korean novelist’s time as a political prisoner and the belief in humanity that sustained him throughout the ordeal. Hwang (b. 1943) is known for his elegant, philosophically self-reflective writing. In this sprawling, detailed chronicle of his life and various imprisonments, he delivers a vivid depiction of some of the historical currents that shaped Korea in the 20th century. Hwang was imprisoned in Seoul after visiting North Korea, which he fled with his family as a child. Upon returning to South Korea, he was accused of espionage and imprisoned via the National Security Act. Many literary figures and activists relentlessly argued for his release, seeing the act as a facade to suppress free speech and imprison activists unjustly. The story oscillates among Hwang’s imprisonment, life outside prison, exile, time as a soldier in the Vietnam War, and recollections from his childhood. The author recounts eating noodles with the former North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung; how the “boxy cars of the East mingled with the sleek sedans of the West amid echoing cheers” as the Berlin Wall fell in front of him; and how his story, among others, made Susan Sontag “shed tears of anger.” Hwang peppers the narrative with prescriptive visions for relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. He is a consummate storyteller, and even those unfamiliar with the topic will find well-written historical exposition and nuanced characterizations. Hwang clearly appreciates the humanity of those he encounters, including prisoners on death row and even Kim Il-sung, contending that no one is beyond moral repair. Such considerations underscore how penal systems are often designed to dehumanize incarcerated individuals—but not Hwang. A potent history of a remarkable life.’ Kirkus starred review

Hwang Sok-yong is Korea’s leading political novelist. His new book, The Prisoner, is every bit as riveting and deeply informed is anything he has written. The author has a political sensibility that illuminates a number of important episodes in Korea’s recent political history, with one trenchant observation after another about both the North and the South. His harrowing experience as a political prisoner under the South Korean dictatorship leaves an indelible black mark on a regime that the United States supported for 40 years, and that Hwang courageously fought every day of his life until the dictatorship finally collapsed.’ Bruce Cumings, historian at the University of Chicago, and the author of the Korean War: A History

Hwang Sok-Yong’s photographic memory yields vitally important historic testimonies: to the trials of his imprisonment, to life in South as well as North Korea under unchecked power, to the dynamism, humanity, persistence and resilience of artists alone and together against injustice. The Prisoner is an invaluable document, a thorough and eye-opening sweep of the past. Translators Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell have done a remarkable job of conveying the political and emotional nuances of language in their source material, and we as grateful readers are all the better for it.’ Khairani Barokka

Cinematic, riveting, elegiac, ‘The Prisoner’ captures the dialectical tensions in Hwang’s life and career in a manner reminiscent of Jacob wrestling with an angel… ‘The Prisoner’ expands Hwang’s literary scope, uniting his life experience with the compassionate realism of his later works… While The Prisoner acknowledges free expression’s burdens and the North-South struggle’s Sisyphean nature, Hwang’s epilogue stands firm with his urgent yet timeless warning: “A society where artists have lost their faculty of criticism and submit unconditionally to power is well on its way to losing its democracy.”’ National Public Radio USA

The author proves in a downright brilliant way, again and again, why he is seen in Korea as one of the most important national writers.’ Le Monde

‘Hwang Sok-yong is the most committed, politically active writer of all those who have been translated from the Korean in recent years.’ Libération


  • Munhakdongne Korea
  • Akashi Japan
  • Editions Philippe Picquier France
  • Verso UK & US

Material: Korean edition (published in two volumes); French edition (one volume 831 pages); English edition (abridged to 610 pages)