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[Classic] #16. “Taebaek Mountain Range” by Cho Jung-rae

“Taebaek Mountain Range” by Cho Jung-rae spans from the Yeosu-Suncheon Incident in 1948 to the Korean War ceasefire in 1953. It follows the struggles of communist activists like Yeom Sang-jin and their battles against oppression. Through this, Cho deeply explores human suffering and hope, leaving a profound impact on readers​

Introduction “Taebaek Mountain Range” by Cho Jung-rae is an epic novel that depicts human suffering and struggle against the backdrop of modern Korean history. The story spans from the Yeosu-Suncheon Incident to the period after the Korean War, portraying the lives of various characters during this tumultuous time​​.

About the Author Cho Jung-rae, born in 1943 at Seonamsa in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do, graduated from Dongguk University’s Department of Korean Literature. He made his literary debut in 1970 and has since written major works including “Taebaek Mountain Range,” “Arirang,” and “The Han River,” leaving a significant mark on Korean literature​​.

Historical Background “Taebaek Mountain Range” is set from the Yeosu-Suncheon Incident in 1948 to the ceasefire of the Korean War in 1953. The Yeosu-Suncheon Incident, along with the Jeju 4.3 Incident, was a tragic event in Korean history caused by the clash between left and right factions during the post-liberation period, leading to the establishment of a strong anti-communist state by the Syngman Rhee government​​.

Main Characters

  • Yeom Sang-jin: A communist activist who becomes a partisan and eventually commits suicide during a battle​​.
  • Yeom Sang-gu: Yeom Sang-jin’s younger brother who fights against the leftists driven by jealousy and anger, becoming a greedy figure​​.
  • Kim Bum-woo: The second son of a landowner in Beolgyo who joins the leftist movement but is captured during the war and placed in a POW camp​​.
  • Seo Min-young: A respected Christian who operates a night school and farm, influencing many people with his rationality and integrity​​.
  • Jung Ha-seop: A key member of a leftist circle and a partisan who is eventually sent to a POW camp during the Korean War​​.

Plot Summary

Volume 1 During the Jeju 4.3 Incident, communism is demonized, leading to the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion led by Yeom Sang-jin and the 14th Regiment. After the failure of this rebellion, communists flee to Mount Jiri, continuing their struggle. Kim Bum-woo and Son Seung-ho develop differing views on socialism​​.

Volume 2 Police, pro-Japanese factions, and landowners oppress communists and civilians alike. Yeom Sang-jin and his comrades, hiding in Mount Jiri, face dilemmas between family and revolution. Meanwhile, members like Kang Dong-sik face personal tragedies​​.

Volume 3 Landowners use communism as a weapon to oppress tenant farmers. Jeong Hyun-dong plans to sell land secretly but faces backlash from tenant farmers, leading to conflicts and violence. Sim Jae-mo, a commander sympathetic to the people’s plight, attempts to mediate conflicts​​.

Volume 4 Yeom Sang-jin secures Wiwyeom-myeon as a liberated area and distributes food to the farmers. The actions of the communists gain the support of the oppressed farmers. Meanwhile, the reality of land reform under the government disappoints many, turning hope into despair​​.

Volume 5 The Anti-Communist Committee in Beolgyo and Boseong seeks to eliminate leftist elements that threaten landowners’ interests. Kim Bum-woo resumes his studies in Seoul amidst the growing division and political turmoil. The land reform fails to meet the farmers’ expectations, leading to further despair​​.

Volume 6 Protests and conflicts continue, with figures like Jeong Hyun-dong clashing with farmers, resulting in violence and death. The introduction of the 2nd National Assembly elections shows a desire for change and reform among the people​​.

Volume 7 North Korea’s surprise attack leads to the rapid retreat of South Korean forces. Yeom Sang-jin and other communists briefly gain control but must retreat again after the Incheon Landing Operation. The war highlights the corruption and cowardice of the landowning and pro-Japanese factions​​.

Volume 8 The immense firepower of the U.S. forces pushes the communists back. The introduction of the National Defense Corps leads to severe logistical failures and corruption, causing widespread suffering. The conflict shifts to a war of attrition with heavy casualties on both sides​​.

Volume 9 The partisans suffer from epidemics and relentless attacks by government forces. Despite their efforts to create a liberated society, they are continually pushed back into the mountains, struggling for survival​​.

Volume 10 As the war nears its end, the remaining partisans gather for one last moment of camaraderie before the final onslaught. The winter offensive by government forces decimates the partisans, leading to their eventual demise. Yeom Sang-jin’s funeral symbolizes the end of the partisan struggle​​.

Reflection “Taebaek Mountain Range” vividly portrays the pain and struggle of Korean history through the lens of communist activists. Cho Jung-rae’s exploration of human suffering and hope provides deep emotional impact, inviting readers to reflect on the essence of humanity amidst historical turmoil​

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