A review of The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

Reviewed by Óscar Molina V.

The Disaster Tourist
by Yun Ko-Eun
Translated by Lizzie Buehler
ISBN-13 : 978-1640094161, August 4, 2020, Paperback : 208 pages

Yona Ko lives for disasters—the more catastrophic, the more profitable. Disasters are the core of her professional life: she likes finding and creating them, if necessary. Yona works as a programming coordinator at Jungle, a Seoul company that specializes in trips to places ravaged by earthquakes, typhoons, volcano eruptions, or tsunamis. After ten years of hard work at Jungle, Yona’s routine is disrupted by her predatory boss, who sexually harasses her in an elevator. When she tries to resign from this toxic environment, her boss convinces her to go on a business trip to Mui, a fictitious northern island, near Vietnam, with a desert sinkhole where Jungle offers a six-day package. The boss wants Yona to evaluate if this package is worth renewing. Yona’s trip will indeed involve business, but also an unmistakable revelation of the natural and economic forces that constrain everyone’s lives.

The Disaster Tourist, the first novel of the South Korean author Yun Ko-Eun to be translated into English, is a sharp, intricate, and too realistic story on how capitalism’s ravenousness can turn almost every person into a disposable mannequin and almost every land into waste disposal. Through Yona Ko’s new mission, Yun points accurately to tourism as one of the most exploitative and harmful industries nowadays. In spite of that, there are some naive tourists, like those who join Yona on her visit to Mui, who still believe they are helping the locals by their mere presence: “They did not want to accept that they’d gone on a trip to a disaster zone only to create a disaster of sorts of their own, by disrupting the lives of the locals” (p.67). 

Yun, who has published several novels and short story collections in South Korea, also evinces the way in which the colonial narrative still shapes the dichotomy between developed and undeveloped societies. City tourists like Yona tend to exoticize the life and customs of those who live in rural areas: “Mui was not the place she thought it was. What Yona had seen during her jungle trip was a simple, unsophisticated countryside devastated by an old disaster, where ‘one dollar’ was the most popular phrase among locals” (p.87).   

The novel itself is traversed by hierarchies. Not all the characters have a name, so not all of them are well-developed. Some just appear by the description of who they are or what they do: “the teacher”, “the teacher’s daughter”, “the manager”, “the writer”. The writer, however, plays a meta-literary role by showing how easy and vile is to write a script for a tailored-disaster: “To control the public’s emotions, you just had to reveal how much the victim’s lives were devastated; in the best cases, those ruined lives induced empathy” (p.130). 

In fact, Yona’s new mission leads her to be voluntarily part of a plan that consists of provoking a new deadly disaster in Mui. Apparently, that’s the only way Jungle has to attract new customers there. Although the development of such a plan makes The Disaster Tourist an effective thriller for the most part, Yun unnecessarily stretches the plot and blends it with a corny love story between Yona and Luck, a local employee at a Mui’s hotel. 

Despite these plot shortfalls, the novel expresses the paradoxes of the current global economic system and sets a truth that is urgently worth remembering in the climate change context: “The timing of disasters isn’t something humans decide”. Only nature has that unrivaled power. Luckily. 

About the reviewer: Óscar Molina V. is an Ecuadorian multimedia journalist. He holds an M.A. in Literary Creation from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (Spain), and he is currently a candidate for an M.A. in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. (Twitter: @OscarMolinaV_)