Un-Su Kim, “The Plotters” translated by Sora Kim-Russell (4th Estate, 2019)

The Plotters Kim Un-Su book cover

The Plotters are shadows who use go-betweens to pass files of targets to assassins. Un-Su Kim’s alternative Korea is not the world of John Wick’s choreographed fights supported by a network of people who specialise in cleaning up and keeping under the radar. Reseng and his fellow assassins hide in plain sight. The wry humour and wash of desperation keep the plot credible and draw readers into rooting for the main character, who isn’t as black as his humour.

Reseng has his target in the crosshairs. Something stops him from pulling the trigger. That something leads him to share a meal with his target, a North Korean and former general. The general’s dog, an elderly mastiff, takes Reseng for a friend and the general tells a story about his grandfather who was dragged overboard by a whale he was trying to harpoon. The whale saved the man’s life. After years of separation man and whale meet again, seemingly recognising each other. The man promises he will return with soju and stories. When grandfather learns he has cancer, he buys several crates of soju and sets off, his body was never found. Reseng does take out his target and his target’s elderly dog. He follows his instructions but not to the letter. Bear, whose job is to cremate the bodies, complains. The Plotters don’t like assassins who don’t follow their instructions without deviation. Reseng’s punishment is to finish a job Chu, who could be described as a colleague and friend of sorts, failed. He’d let a woman escape instead of killing her. Bear calls Reseng and Old Raccoon when Chu’s body turns up at the crematorium. Dissenting assassins can’t be permitted to live. Although the three work out who the assassin was, they also know it’s not worth going after an assassin who was merely carrying out orders.

At four-years-old, Reseng was fostered by Old Raccoon, who didn’t let Reseng go to school. On discovering Reseng had taught himself to read, Old Raccoon scolds him and snatches his book away. Too upset by the death of a favourite character to care too much about consequences – and, at nine-years-old, not particularly self-aware either, Reseng tells Old Raccoon he will read and wants his book back. Reseng continued to teach himself. Years pass before he processes the significance of getting his book back1. Both of them live in the library Old Raccoon renamed ‘The Dog House’. Another of Old Raccoon’s former foster children, Hanja, isn’t pleased that the former general’s body has been cremated. He’d hoped to get some political capital out of the body by fabricating evidence the assassination had been carried out by North Koreans. He represents a new order, assassins dressed as businessmen rather than lurking in underground markets and keeping to the edges of society. Names matter, Hanja, which is also the name for the traditional Korean writing system that used Chinese figures, thinks himself a strategist, one step ahead of everyone around him but also fixed and traditional in his thinking. The Plotters rely on anonymity, passing files of targets through middlemen who never know if the person passing the file is a Plotter or just another middleman. Hanja warns Reseng he can’t get by on being cute forever and needs to pack in smoking. Reseng always figured it didn’t matter, he’d be dead before he got lung cancer 2. Reseng is to lay low for a while. There’s an important election in progress, one Hanja is planning to influence with no thought as to whether his desired result aligns with what the Plotters want.

Until Reseng finds a small bomb, disguised in a ceramic housing, in his toilet. He already knew someone had been in his apartment and had swept the place for bugs, finding none. The hardware store owner Reseng previously worked for warns “If this was planned by government spooks, you’re better off putting it back in your toilet and dying.”3. So far Reseng’s survived longer than any of the assassins he’s known. Now he’s drawn into a turf war between Hanja and Mito, who couldn’t find the driver responsible for the car crash which killed her parents and left her sister disabled. Reseng assumes her motivation is revenge. She shares Hanja’s rigidity and knows if she puts her plot into action, she won’t survive. However, she continues to fine-tune her plot. Old Raccoon seems to have faith that Reseng will find his own way through.

Reseng is a realist. He knows his days are numbered. Briefly, he escaped the role of assassin, taking up work in a factory, adjusting to a normal life. But he got a note from Old Raccoon and made the decision to return to his former role. Old Raccoon is probably one of the most un-father-like father-figures, but he knows what he’s drawing his former foster child into and has prepared him, although Reseng doesn’t fully appreciate that yet. Hanja is more straightforward as a politician, one who seeks to control his world and bolster his image, believing his good deeds outweigh his bad, just about. Mito is preparing to make the biggest flash she can, exposing as much of the Plotters’ shadowy underworld as possible. It’s all in the timing. She knows she may not survive it, but is also determined to get all her ducks in a row before taking action. For her, Reseng is a wildcard to be tamed. But Reseng’s not used to entirely following instructions.

The pace is finely judged. Fast paced action is counterbalanced by slower scenes of recuperation, waiting for a body’s cremation, dialogue between characters where what’s important isn’t what’s said, but also what’s not said. There are tender moments too. Reseng leaves an urn with a victim and asks Bear to scatter the victim’s ashes with those of his wife and daughter (not Reseng’s doing) from the urn 4. Mito’s sister is wheeled out so she can experience snow for the first time.

Can an assassin who shares a final meal before a kill and compassionately includes the target’s elderly dog, gives money to the homeless, ensures his cats will be cared for before what could be his final mission, survive after finding himself on the Plotters’ hitlist? The clue lies in his name. Reseng, drawing his name in Chinese characters discovers it has another meaning. Old Raccoon denies knowledge of this, but at this stage readers know he’s too wily to be trusted not to be lying. Reseng follows his instincts. Can going rogue work for or against him? Un-Su Kim makes readers hope Reseng gets the outcome he deserves.

Orphaned and in a role where death is arbitrary and unpredictable – even following the Plotters’ rules to the letter is no guarantee of staying off a hit list – and in the knowledge no one will mourn for him, Reseng’s ultimate dilemma is whether he can make his death meaningful. He doesn’t fear death – it’s about the only certain thing in his life and holds no mystery. He’s seen allies killed to no avail: their world has remained just as murky as it was. Will Reseng’s death, whenever and how ever it comes, be equally unremarkable? What legacy will he leave? The Plotters could be read as a pacey, wryly humorous thriller, but Un-Su Kim also asks bigger questions about societal structures and how those considered unimportant and unconnected still forge familial bonds or loyalties and bring meaning to an apparently worthless life.

1 Un-su Kim, The Plotters translated by Sora Kim-Russell (4th Estate, 2019) page 25
2 ibid page 87
3 ibid page 130
4 ibid page 267