When the stay-at-home orders were issued in the first weeks of the pandemic, a new term quickly spread across the United States: Suddenly, some of the most precarious people in the country were called “essential workers.” This didn’t just mean the doctors and nurses who braced for a deluge of patients. It also meant farmworkers, supermarket employees, and the people sorting and packing shipments in Amazon warehouses. It meant home health aides, bodega clerks, and janitors. Confusion ensued: What did essential really mean? Of all the ways Americans were used to talking about jobs—in terms of money, stability, power—we’d not often talked about which workers were most necessary, and which workers were not. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the services that needed to stay open, even as he reiterated that he wanted everyone else to stay home, he said, “Look, society has to function.”
The priorities of politicians and business leaders quickly showed that it was the labor these workers performed that was essential, not the workers themselves. In California, growers gave their undocumented employees letters that they could show if they were stopped on their way to the fields: The papers said the employees were essential, though no document short of a U.S. passport could stop ICE from detaining them. In New York City, nurses hailed as heroes ran out of gowns and were forced to wear garbage bags. COVID-19 ripped through meat-processing plants, and bosses made workers work faster. Across the board, essential workers got sick. The toll on Black and Latino communities has been devastating. The society being protected is one in which these workers’ lives matter less.
The South Korean writer Yun Ko-Eun’s novel The Disaster Tourist confronts that brutal calculus head-on. Although it was first published in Korean in 2013, this tale of complicity and denial (reintroduced in a new English translation by Lizzie Buehler this summer) feels nauseatingly on point this year. Hurtling from a Seoul office building to a remote desert island in Southeast Asia, Yun’s late-capitalist satire makes the case that the identity we find through work is almost always shaped by how we have been exploited—or how we have exploited others.
The book follows the 30-something Seoul office worker Yona Ko, a tour coordinator at a travel company called Jungle. The company specializes in disaster tours—vacation packages to places ravaged by tsunamis, earthquakes, or poverty, where adventurous travelers can seek “moral lessons.” Death tolls and Richter magnitudes are “as quotidian to Yona as the changing colors of a traffic light.” After a decade in the office, however, she has recently endured a series of humiliations, including an unexplained demotion and shameless sexual assaults by her boss. When she tries to quit, her boss persuades her to take a new assignment instead: She has to go on one of the company’s least popular disaster tours, and make a full report on how to improve it. As it turns out, the only way to freshen up a disaster tour is with a new disaster—and soon Yona is pulled into an outrageous conspiracy to stage one on the fictional island of Mui. In this novel, unlike in life, the chief conspirators make no bones about what it will take to sell their idea: If they want this scheme to work, people will have to die.
In a recent interview, Yun—whose story collections and novels have won accolades in South Korea—said she had toxic status quos in mind while writing the book seven years ago. “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,’” she said. “But if everyone only focuses on his or her respective role, this myopia, this willingness to look the other way, accumulates into tragedy.” She acknowledged the explosion of #MeToo stories that followed the book’s Korean publication, although the imbalance she sought to address was broader than that: She uses the Korean word gapjil, which she translates as “abusing one’s authority to take advantage of those in lower positions.”
The novel’s central scheme is so ambitious, it’s surreal: It’s hard to imagine someone staging a plausible natural disaster. Gapjil, though, is all too familiar. In the book, the most powerful figures are corporate entities such as Jungle and the shadowy conglomerate Paul, which rules everything on Mui: Although their leadership is invisible, their decisions ride roughshod over everyone else. Below them are the people in the middle, paddling madly to stay in place. At the bottom are those who have no choice but to put their bodies on the line. The characters in the novel are lightly sketched (even Yona’s motivations can be mysterious), and they’re not developed so much as ushered along by plot. But that just adds to the aura of inevitability. Instead of agency, an immovable hierarchy of power shapes the characters’ expectations and propels the story forward.
The Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye wrote that for satire to work, it needed to include “a token fantasy, a content which the reader recognizes as grotesque”; otherwise, the satire “breaks down when its content is too oppressively real.” The Disaster Tourist comes close to being oppressive at times, especially in Yona’s seemingly uncritical view of a workplace that keeps her down. When some colleagues approach her to say they’ve also been harassed by the manager who assaulted her, and ask her to join them in protest, Yona rejects them: “She had no desire to join the group of victims, the has-beens and the losers, the dregs of the company.” When she arrives on Mui, she seems to scoff at the way locals are forced to play up their misery. That she’s spent the past decade designing tours that require this work doesn’t seem to register.
Yun gets the narrative on track when Yona meets the people on Mui who pull her into their scheme. If something does feel, in Frye’s terms, like a “token fantasy,” it’s that these characters are so frank about what their deadly goals will require. To really make their new disaster legit—and, they claim, save the island—they’ll need at least 100 casualties. Their reasoning is that Mui’s economy can’t survive without its disaster industry, and no good disaster comes without a death toll. “There’s not really a difference between dying in a natural disaster and starving to death, is there?” one co-conspirator says to Yona. “In the current situation, dying in a natural disaster would be preferable … if disaster disappears from Mui, life disappears, too.”
The disastrous fallout of the coronavirus pandemic was not planned by a shadowy cabal. Yet Amazon, Apple, Pfizer, and other massive entities have profited enormously during a crisis that has devastated small businesses and killed more than 162,000 Americans. These corporations would never admit that this disaster has been good for them—that if “disaster disappears,” their tumorous profits could too. And this state of affairs is magnified by politicians who keep putting profit before lives: Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even suggested expanding the definition of “essential workers” as a way to bring more people back to work. His state was registering then, on average, more than 7,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day.
Responsibility to human life has long been a matter of rhetoric, as the writer Danielle Evans wrote in The Sewanee Review in April: As a Black woman whose anxiety in doctors’ offices can send her usually normal blood pressure soaring, she pondered what would happen if she got sick with COVID-19. “Someone would say hypertension,” she wrote, “someone would say comorbidity, someone would read the summarized statistics and say, That one doesn’t count, she was basically dead anyway, because this is the game we are playing with language, one where I and most of the people in my family cannot count as dying of this because we are already not alive.”
As in the real world, death in The Disaster Tourist becomes more optional the more powerful you are. Late in the book, struggling with the implications of the Mui conspiracy, Yona makes a long-distance call to the Jungle office. The rep who answers tells Yona that her abusive boss has left the company—and Yona smells a possible way out.
“Okay, I’ll quit too,” Yona says. “I’ll quit so I can finally do what I want.”
“According to the rules,” says the rep, “it’s only possible for you to quit in the middle of a business trip if you die.”
Yona has it better than the locals who have agreed to playact, and likely die, in Mui’s fake new disaster. One actor contemplates what lies ahead: “If he had really good luck, he’d get his $4,000 and still survive. He’d been assigned lines to recite if he did make it. He practiced them once more, and grew frustrated that he couldn’t remember them precisely. It was an upsetting prospect, forgetting the lines he’d have to say if he survived … He’d chosen to go down this path, so he didn’t know why he felt resentful.”
Under capitalism, a slim chance of survival can start to look like a lucky break. “Disaster lay dormant in every corner, like depression,” Yona thinks, before her own downfall begins. “You never knew when it might spring into terrible action, but if you were lucky, it could remain hidden for a lifetime.” By the end of the novel, that “if” has burned to a crisp. Yun allows her characters just a few moments of solace and connection—and a surprising show of solidarity, right when all seems lost. Ultimately, though, they don’t rail against the system they’re stuck inside. They are resigned to it, or they enable it, and they’re annihilated anyway. Look, society has to function. This is what happens when it does.