Yun Ko-eun’s disconcerting and darkly funny novel The Disaster Tourist follows the misfortunes of Yona, a disgruntled coordinator for the travel company Jungle. Yona’s employer organizes guided tours to destinations that have been traumatized by disaster – earthquakes, floods, fires and war, amongst dozens of other categories. When she threatens to quit her job after a co-worker sexually harasses her, Jungle executives try to keep their veteran employee by offering her a free trip to the Southeast Asian island of Mui. This ‘opportunity’, Yona soon learns, is merely an extension of her work responsibilities; Mui’s tourist numbers have been decreasing for years, and Yona’s job is to determine if Mui should be removed from Jungle’s list of tour offerings. Upon her arrival, she finds herself swept up in a plan – spearheaded by the manager of the resort where she is staying – to save Mui’s status as a Jungle destination. But his plan to orchestrate an artificial catastrophe that will put Mui back on the map soon goes awry. As Yona debates the merits of putting the lives of Mui residents at risk for Jungle’s profit, she realizes that her own life is in jeopardy.

LB: I keep thinking about the role that power plays in the book. Within Jungles bureaucracy, Yona is at the bottom of the totem pole – no one recognizes her contributions to the company, and her co-worker Jo-gwang Kim feels he can sexually harass her because he doesn’t think she is powerful enough to resist. But once Yona is in Mui, she finds herself responsible for the lives and futures of Mui residents. What did you want this book to say about the status of women in Korea, and about Korea’s workplace culture?

YK: I wanted to create an amorphous and anonymous figure who directed the lives of Yona and the other workers on Mui. I named him Paul, but we never really figure out who exactly ‘he’ is. I imagined Paul’s anonymity as a reflection of how power functions today. George Orwell wrote 1984 decades ago, but Big Brother still feels like an ever-approaching menace. I wrote The Disaster Tourist as my own Orwellian dystopia, with Paul acting as a faceless – if not nameless – Big Brother. Even if someone came out and said, “I’m Paul!” I don’t think this revelation would matter. The lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions – in The Disaster Tourist and in real life – is a structural problem. I’m sure this is the case in the US as well as in Korea. There’s a tendency for individuals, both in the workplace and in society at large, to say, “That’s not my job. That’s not my problem.” But if everyone only focuses on his or her respective role, this myopia, this willingness to look the other way accumulates into tragedy. Paul is the manifestation of this lack of personal accountability. He’s all-powerful, but invisible.

To answer your question about women: I wrote this book seven years ago, before the #MeToo movement had gained worldwide recognition. Today Korean women are speaking out more against sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Of course, sexual harassment continues, but the issue here isn’t just that Kim is a man and Yona is a woman. Kim’s harassment of Yona is an example of what we call gapjil in Korean: abusing one’s authority to take advantage of those in lower positions. Gapjil is a much broader issue than gender discrimination, which makes it a harder problem to solve. As I was writing The Disaster Tourist, my friends who work in office environments would describe personal experiences very similar to Yona’s. Their higher-ups tended to brush off any complaints, telling my friends that if they would just ignore what had happened to them, everything would be fine. The novel doesn’t necessarily offer a simple resolution to these kinds of problems: rather than go public and fight against Kim, Yona decides to stay quiet and compromise with Jungle. A lot of people in situations like Yona’s do the same. Yona has been with Jungle for a decade and worked her way up to a mid-level position; for her and people like her, a pressing concern is keeping their jobs. I wanted to show how entrenched workplace abuse of power can be.

In some ways, humans do control nature, but not completely. Like fire, we are capable of prodigious achievements, but also an impressive level of destruction. People lose sight of the fact that we’re a part of nature too.”

Another important theme throughout the novel is the impact that humans have on the environment. We have the opportunity to control nature in some ways but, as we learn from the book, humans are never completely in control. What motivated you to comment on humanitys powerlessness in the face of the natural world?

There’s a quote from James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain that really stuck with me. Humans think that we have conquered fire, that we control it. But really, the opposite is true. We can’t live without fire. We need it to cook, to keep ourselves warm, to do all sorts of things. And when a fire starts accidentally, we often can’t put it out. Doesn’t this mean that fire is really controlling us? We lose houses to fire; people and animals burn to death. In some ways, humans do control nature, but not completely. Like fire, we are capable of prodigious achievements, but also an impressive level of destruction. People lose sight of the fact that we’re a part of nature too. We use nature as a thing and a tool, when it’s really neither of these. I wanted The Disaster Tourist to be a kind of warning against this.

What research went into writing this book, and creating the fictional island of Mui?

The physical descriptions of Mui – the weather, the culture and the street scenes – are based on my own travel experiences in Southeast Asia. My memories helped much more with the creation of the book than any formal research. I was influenced as well by people I met during my travels, particularly Korean travel guides I spoke with when I was in Vietnam. A lot of Koreans have certain kinds of expectations when visiting countries in Southeast Asia. Vietnam and Thailand, for example, are only a few hours from Korea by plane, so we tend to think of them as convenient destinations – places with warm weather, luxurious resorts, low prices and a welcoming population. In this sense, certain cities in the region play the role of a ‘nearby paradise’ for Korean visitors. And just like other travel destinations, they are subject to the ebbs and flows of popularity, leaving the economies that have built up around former hotspots to languish. Tourists are always looking for the newest, cleanest and safest undiscovered utopia. To a certain degree, the relationship between Korea and Mui in the novel reflects the entangled relationship between Korean tourists and the travel industry of Southeast Asia. At one time, Mui was the place to visit, but now it isn’t; its downfall is what leads to the situation in which Yona finds herself.

As the English translator of The Disaster Tourist, this is a self-interested question, but do you have any thoughts on your novel’s translation?

It was really a happy experience, something I’d fantasized about for a long time. When I began writing, there were a few scenarios that I dreamed would someday come true. The first was publishing a book. Then it was going to a bookstore and seeing my books on the shelf. Someday – and this still hasn’t happened – I hope that on the subway I’ll see someone reading one of my books. (Once, at a Starbucks, I saw someone sitting with The Disaster Tourist on the table; this made me so frazzled that I left the cafe.) Anyway, one of my literary dreams was to have my work translated into another language. Korean translations are how I encounter foreign writers; these translations bring me to worlds different from my own. Similarly, translation is a vehicle carrying my world across borders. In another sense, translation represents a new creation. Everyone has said something that was interpreted differently than they imagined it would be. The translator can’t avoid imposing her voice on top of the original work; from the writer’s perspective, translation isn’t a neutral delivery of information, it’s a new creative experience. That makes it interesting. The process of translating The Disaster Tourist involved a lot of back-and-forth emails asking very specific questions about meaning and cultural specificities, which made me think about aspects of the book and of the Korean language that I hadn’t considered before. It felt like I was writing the book a second time, like I was embarking on a journey of sorts.

The timeliness of the books English publication is oddly fitting, as the world currently faces the real-life disaster of coronavirus. Do you think that our reality is growing closer to Yonas?

I can’t imagine what life will be like post-coronavirus. This is the first time that we’ve experienced a medical crisis like this, making it hard to imagine returning to a pre-virus life. One of the images that kept recurring in my head while I was writing The Disaster Tourist was a sequence of dominoes falling in a chain reaction. A chain of events happening a world away might feel distant, but in the end, even the last domino falls. If I just consider Korea’s reaction to the coronavirus, I feel fairly secure. We’ve managed to control the spread, we hope. But the virus is now moving into other parts of the world. The earth is just a large intertwined ball; perhaps the chain reactions that led to this pandemic are a step into Yona’s world. Our immediate surroundings don’t represent the entire planet. In Korea, we’ve been saying that the worst thing we can do regarding the virus is to lower our guard.

I wanted to poke fun at people who think they have nothing to do with catastrophes, who think they’re immune… I use imagination and a sense of distance to add humour to otherwise serious topics.”

Theres a tendency in the English-language press to group together contemporary Korean fiction as a genre, even though theres a considerable diversity of voices in Korean literature today. How do you think your writing fits into the Korean literary scene?

Well I write in Korean, which places my work within the category of Korean literature. But everyone uses language distinctly; writers are no different. If you approach writers working in the Korean language from the framework of ‘Korean literature’, you risk overlooking the varied tones of their voices. I will admit, I do arrange the books on my shelf by language. This makes it easier to find a book in a practical sense, but we don’t need to organize our books by language when we’re talking about the possibilities of literature. I think that my role within contemporary Korean literature, and the goal in all my work, is to make the reader wonder, is this real? There’s probably not a real travel agency with 152 packages for disaster vacations, but in The Disaster Tourist I created one. I wanted to poke fun at people who think they have nothing to do with catastrophes, who think that they’re immune. There’s a word in Korean – utpeuda – made from a combination of the words for funny (utgida) and sad (seulpeuda). It describes a sense of sorrow mixed with recognition of the absurd. This emotion is present in all of my writing. We can’t cut pain out of literature, just as we can’t cut it out of our lives, but this doesn’t mean that we have to express pain so mournfully. Reviews of my books often contain descriptors like “humorous”, “fresh” and “fantastical”. This isn’t a reflection of the lighthearted subject matter of my work – it isn’t lighthearted. Rather, I use imagination and a sense of distance to add humour to otherwise serious topics. This is the creative approach I employ most.

What books have you been reading recently?

This is a hard question to answer. I usually read about five books a week – three for the radio show I host and two for fun. One of my favourite books from the past year was The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. It’s set in a natural history museum near London, where someone stole hundreds of rare bird feathers from the collection. This book made an impression on me, because it’s non-fiction but unfolds like a mystery novel. I found the conflict between environmentalists and the community of rare feather collectors compelling. I also enjoyed Suspect on the Night Train by Yoko Tawada (unfortunately not yet out in English). I’ve always liked books that make me feel like I’m going on a trip somewhere. Recently, astronaut Michael Collins’ autobiography Carrying the Fire took me away, his meticulous sentences acting as my guide.

What are you working on now?

I’m planning to finish my next book over the summer, and it should come out in the fall. It’s about marriage insurance. Of course, everyone is familiar with car insurance and home insurance and various other policies that people can take out specific to their needs. But no one has come up with the idea of marriage insurance, to protect people from adversity incurred throughout married life. In Korea, like much of the world, marriage used to be expected, but now it’s optional. Some people marry and some don’t. For those who do get married, at least in the book, insurance makes the prospect of conjugal life less scary. It protects the policy holder against all sorts of situations. Koreans have begun to doubt the formerly unquestioned traditions that once governed our lives. Love, marriage, pregnancy and childbirth are no longer a given; neither is the concept of a job for life. Young Koreans are proving that there are various ways to forge one’s path. My next novel begins with the question: how much is marriage worth? That’s what I’m thinking about these days.


Yun Ko-eun is the author of three novels and four short-story collections. In South Korea, her work has received widespread praise, earning awards including the Hankyoreh Literary Award, the Yi Hyo-Seok Literary Award and the Kim Yong-ik Novel Award. She lives in Seoul, where she teaches creative writing at Dongguk University and is host of the EBS Radio show Yun Ko-eun’s Book Cafe. The Disaster Tourist, her English-language debut, is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK and Counterpoint Press in the US.

Author portrait © Lee Sang Min

Lizzie Buehler is a PhD student in comparative literature at Harvard University and holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. Her writing and short translations have appeared in Asymptote, AzaleaLitro, the Massachussetts Review and Translation Review. In addition to The Disaster Tourist, she has translated Yun Ko-eun’s story collection Table for One (Columbia University Press, April 2021).