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Yun Ko-eun: 밤의 여행자들 (The Disaster Tourist)

Disaster tourism is now a well-established form of tourism, from Pompeii to Chernobyl, not to mention US visits to the like of post-Katrina New Orleans, Detroit and Centralia. As the English title of this book tells us (the Korean title actually translates as Night Travellers), this book is about this topic though the disasters turn out to be somewhat different from what we expected.

Yona works for Jungle, a Korean disaster tourism company. We are told Every year, the world experienced on average 900 earthquakes that measured higher than 5.0 on the Richter scale, and 300 volcanoes – large and small – exploded across all seven continents. Only last year, almost 200,000 people had died in natural disasters. With an average of 100,000 annual deaths over the past ten years, calamity was growing more powerful and periodic. In short there is plenty of material.

Yona’s most recent task has been a tour to the town of Jinhae, which has been hit by a tsunami. She also has to deal with disgruntled customers who want to cancel for some reason but are told that they cannot get a refund.

One day, without warning, she is sexually assaulted in the lift by her boss, Kim. The assault, quite blatant, is bad enough but it has worse implications. Kim only abuses and assaults those who have been given a yellow card, a football term used in the company for those whose jobs are at risk because they have committed – another football term – a foul. Details are never given so the employee often does know know what s/he has to do to get back in the boss’s good books. in Yona’s case, she now finds she is given the most menial tasks to perform. However, when other victims of Kim hear about her plight – her assault was visible to all on CCTV – she declines to join them in a protest. She decides to leave the company.

However, when she submits her resignation, Kim offers her a deal. She can have a month’s rest,which will involve going on one of the company’s trips and evaluating it. All the trips are at risk of being cancelled. She chooses the Desert Sinkhole trip, recommended by a colleague,as it is the most expensive and thus the most luxurious. It takes place on the island of Mui, off the coast of Vietnam.

It is not impressive, The sinkhole is no longer a sinkhole but, because of heavy rain, a lake. The volcano is not recognisable as a volcano. There is a bloodthirsty side. In 1963 two tribes had a nasty and bloody war, with lots of decapitations. However, there is no evidence of this, though a five year old girl with her mother seems to take great pleasure in it. There is a homestay but this is just in substandard accommodation and makes her sick.

On the way back, she is searching for a toilet on the train and inadvertently gets caught on a part of the train which has been detached. Her luggage is with the main train. Her wallet and passport are missing. Her phone has almost run out of battery. She is in the middle of nowhere, where nobody speaks English or Korean.

With considerable difficulty she makes her way back to the resort at Mui, which is now almost deserted, as the season has ended. However, a lot of work is going on and she learns that a mysterious company called Paul is setting up a project where there will be real disaster, with lots of real dead bodies, in order to save the project from being cancelled. Yona gets more and more dragged into this project, till she realises that her involvement is likely to be much greater than she had anticipated or wanted.

Though this novel was written seven years before the Covid-19 pandemic, it certainly seems to have some relevance. One of the issues relating to the virus is where you draw the line between saving lives from the virus (by restricting activity) and causing harm, including deaths, with the restrictions leading to massive job losses, mental health issues and reduced treatment for non-covid conditions. As some people have bluntly put it, what does it matter if a few old people, who were going to die soon anyway, die a year or two earlier?

The same sort of issue is raised in Mui, though perhaps more bluntly. What does it matter if a few indigenous people lose their livelihoods and some of them die, if it benefits the community as a whole? Though obviously Yun Ko-eun was not aware of covid-19, she clearly has thought about this issue. It is clear to her and, hopefully to us, that the main beneficiaries of this approach in Mui will not be the ordinary people, but the well-to-do businesses, the mysterious Paul in particular.

Yun Ko-eun clearly raises important issues. The issue mentioned above is one but there is also the issue of sexual harassment and how it is treated in South Korea (according to this book, not all). Disaster tourism is also criticised, as it is just voyeurism by the rich, watching the poor suffering. Yun Ko-eun makes some very important points, while telling a first-class story, one which has increased in importance with the covid pandemic.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Minŭmsa
First English translation by Serpent’s Tail/Counterpoint in 2020
Translated by Lizzie Buehler