All posts by K.J. Noh

NY Times Pours Linguistic Gasoline on North Korea-US Negotiations

On the heels of the historic June 12 Trump-Kim Singapore Summit that de-escalated tensions between North Korea and the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his third visit to NK to move the negotiations for denuclearization and security on the peninsula forward. He met with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Chair of the Party Central Committee, Kim Young Chol, on July 6 and 7, for intensive negotiations. At the end of the meeting, on leaving Pyongyang, Secretary Pompeo declared that the summit had been conducted in good faith and that he had “made progress on almost all central matters”. Without divulging details, he stated there was more work to be done, which would be continued by working groups on both sides and that a follow up meeting had been scheduled.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry released a more sobering assessment, stating that despite high expectations after the summit they found “regrettable” the US failure to approach the negotiations in a balanced and constructive manner, and critiquing the “opposing winds” that recapitulate the “tired old process” (CVID, disclosure, verification first) that could lead to failure, and that have ignored or misinterpreted their unilateral gestures of good will, forbearance, and their desire for phased, mutual, step-wise measures based on the creation of “objective conditions for trust”.

Clearly, after the euphoria of the Singapore summit, this is a drilling down onto the details on process, timing, specifics, and reciprocity necessary for the successful implementation of the Singapore Summit’s four enumerated commitments: normalization, peace, denuclearization, and repatriation of remains. Clearly there is much to bridge in terms of procedure, protocol, sequencing, as well as a need to overcome mutual distrust and historical antagonism.

The North Korean statement is a quiet but firm dressing down of the Bolton Approach that seems to have been upfront in the recent negotiation, that seeks to rapidly frontload the process with North Korean concessions on disarmament, after which US concessions and security guarantees could be provided. The North points to this “tired old approach” as lacking simultaneity, mutuality, and trust-building measures, and points out it has clearly failed in the past. They peg it—in polite diplomatic language—as the definitionally insane practice of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different outcomes. They take great pains to point out that Trump’s approach was the promise of a bold, new approach to denuclearization, mutually agreed-upon at the summit, and they hint that “working level groups”, and “oppositional winds” might be working in a way that contravenes what they understand to have been proposed and agreed to by Trump. There is, in the statement, a question to Washington as to whether its charges are faithfully implementing its own stated desires and will, as well as an inquiry as to whether there is congruence and internal alignment (or change of tactics) within the administration. It is also a not-so-subtle hint that if the Bolton faction is ascendant, then the bets are likely to be called off.

It’s important to note here that the North Korean Foreign Ministry statement, while clearly critical and inquiring, is very measured, relative to past statements from the leadership, and there is little overblown rhetoric there. If anything, the language is careful and circuitous, and the recrimination is largely self-directed: they may have been “naïve to the point of foolishness in their hopes and expectations”, and they express their worries of “great disappointment and tragedy”. They critique the “erroneous thinking” that assumes that “our forbearance” will accommodate the “demands based on such a strong-arming mindset” and consider “unhelpful” the “hurriedness that has seized” the US that elides the need for confidence-building measures to overcome “deep-rooted mistrust”. Nevertheless, they mention that they still “faithfully maintain their trust” in Trump and make clear their intentions to continue to denuclearize. They finish with an almost wistful tone: they warn of deep disappointment to the international society and global peace and security, and that there is no guarantee that a tragic outcome will not follow from this one-sided approach.

Trust the New York Times to misrepresent the above statement, the better to pour linguistic gasoline over the still unextinguished of pyres of recent North Korea-US brinksmanship. There’s nothing like headlining a linguistic firebomb to torch any fragile, combustible agreements or relations that might be in the process of negotiation or exploration: “North Korea Criticizes ‘Gangster-Like’ U.S. Attitude After Talks With Mike Pompeo.”

By attributing “Gangster-like” invective to North Korea, the Times refreshes the “irrational, out-of-control, over- the- top, can’t-be-negotiated-with” framing that has prevented, sabotaged and derailed negotiation in the past. It also puts the Trump administration further on the back foot, reprising the illogical trope that the US had demeaned its global standing just by meeting with North Korea, and is now further demeaned by tolerating being insulted by it. Although early media outlets were circumspect in their characterization of the disagreement, focusing appropriately on the disappointment and regret by North Korea in the divergence in the talks from agreed upon approaches in Singapore, after the NY Times published this incendiary headline, the “gangster” trope was then picked up by the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, even DemocracyNow! and is now the standard media sound bite about the meeting. The administration is now in the awkward position of defending against the NY Times epithet rather than discussing its work for peace and denuclearization.

The phrase the NY Times is referring to in the statement is “강도적인 비핵화요구” . In literal translation, this would be “robber-like”, but in this context would be more accurately translated as “strong arming, or high pressure demands for denuclearization.”1 The North has no problem using strong language in its statements, but this statement hardly conforms to that type. As noted above, it’s a pointed critique of the “cancerous” Bolton approach—tempered with self-criticism and an appeal to faithfully implement the new approaches and attitudes of the Singapore summit. It’s hardly the incendiary firebomb the NY Times would like it to be.

Further reading of the statement clarifies this:

But, if the US, sized by a sense of impatience, tries to enforce on us, the old ways asserted by previous administrations, this will not give us any help in solving the problem.

If the objective conditions conducive to denuclearization in accordance with our wills are not established, then it’s possible that the currents of positive development in developing bilateral relations in the beginning could become confused [turbulent].

Should opposing winds start to blow, this could bring great disappointment to international society that desires peace and security, as well as to the US and NK; and if that happens, then both sides would start to explore other options; there is no guarantee that this would not lead to tragic consequences.

[However] We still faithfully maintain our trust in President Trump.

The US should reflect seriously whether, in opposition to the will of its [own] leaders, permitting these opposing forces (“winds”) meets the aspirations and expectations of the people of the world, and whether it meets the interests of its own county.

This not a minor exegetical divergence. The upfront voicing of a legitimate disagreement with an approach—at the beginning of a long, complex, negotiation fraught with mistrust—and an appeal to return to the agreed-upon spirit and intent of the summit are a far cry from reductively headlining and encapsulating the disagreement to a deal-breaking, incendiary cri-de-coeur of violent criminality and thuggishness. On the contrary, the North Korean position is clear and reasoned:

Dispelling deep-rooted mistrust, and building trust between the DPRK and the U.S.; seeking to resolve the problem in completely new way—by boldly breaking away from past methods and being unconstrained by conventional methods that have only resulted in failure; prioritizing trust-building while solving one-by-one problems that can be solved through a step-by-step process, [based on the] principle of simultaneous [reciprocal] actions: this is the fastest shortcut to denuclearization.

Perhaps the storied NY Times has no one on their large staff capable of rendering a nuanced, contextual interpretation of North Korean statements—even for the most delicate of delicate negotiations. Perhaps this is part of their baked-in, irredeemable, click-baiting journalistic incompetence. But taken in context with a past record of journalistic gangsterism—namely criminally irresponsible lies and misrepresentation agitating for violent war of aggression—it’s understandable it might jump to see gangsters and gangsterism everywhere.

*****
Full Translation of NK Statement (Author’s Translation)
7/7/2018 Ministry of Foreign Affairs

조선민주주의인민공화국 외무성 대변인담화

Pyongyang, July 7 (KCNA) – Statement of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

력사적인 첫 조미수뇌상봉과 회담이 진행된 이후 국제사회의 기대와 관심은 조미수뇌회담 공동성명의 리행을 위한 조미고위급회담에 쏠리였다.

After the first historic summit meeting was held between the DPRK and the U.S., international society has focused its expectation and attention on the high-level DPRK-U.S. talks for the implementation of the Joint Statement of the DPRK-U.S. summit.

우리는 미국측이 조미수뇌상봉과 회담의 정신에 맞게 신뢰조성에 도움이 되는 건설적인 방안을 가지고 오리라고 기대하면서 그에 상응한 그 무엇인가를 해줄 생각도 하고있었다.

We expected that the U.S. side would bring [to the talks] constructive proposals that would help trust-building in accordance with the spirit of the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting.

We, on our part, were also thinking of offering things to match this.

그러나 6일과 7일에 진행된 첫 조미고위급회담에서 나타난 미국측의 태도와 립장은 실로 유감스럽기 그지없는것이였다.

However, the the attitude and position that appeared in the US Side during the first high level talks held on July 6th and 7th was truly regretful.

우리측은 조미수뇌상봉과 회담의 정신과 합의사항을 성실하게 리행할 변함없는 의지로부터 이번 회담에서 공동성명의 모든 조항들의 균형적인 리행을 위한 건설적인 방도들을 제기하였다

Our side, during the talks, put forward constructive proposals in order to seek a balanced implementation of the Joint Statement, out of our firm willingness faithfully implement of the spirit and the agreed-upon provisions of the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting and talks.

조미관계개선을 위한 다방면적인 교류를 실현할데 대한 문제와 조선반도에서의 평화체제구축을 위하여 우선 조선정전협정체결 65돐을 계기로 종전선언을 발표할데 대한 문제,비핵화조치의 일환으로 ICBM의 생산중단을 물리적으로 확증하기 위하여 대출력발동기시험장을 페기하는 문제,미군유골발굴을 위한 실무협상을 조속히 시작할데 대한 문제 등 광범위한 행동조치들을 각기 동시적으로 취하는 문제를 토의할것을 제기하였다.

These included proposing wide-ranging, simultaneous, mutual, proactive steps, such as realizing multilateral exchanges for improved relations between the DPRK and the U.S; making a public declaration to the end of war on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, in order to build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula; as a single element of the denuclearization process, dismantling [our] high thrust jet engine test grounds as concrete proof of the suspension of ICBM production; and making the earliest start on working-level talks for repatriating POW/MIA remains.

회담에 앞서 조선민주주의인민공화국 국무위원회 위원장 김정은동지께서 트럼프대통령에게 보내시는 친서를 위임에 따라 우리측 수석대표인 김영철 당중앙위원회 부위원장이 미국측 수석대표인 폼페오국무장관에게 정중히 전달하였다.

Prior to the talks, Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, our chief delegate from our side to the talks, was tasked to convey, with due respect, to U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, a personal letter from the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK, Kim Jong Un to President Trump.

국무위원회 위원장동지께서는 싱가포르수뇌상봉과 회담을 통하여 트럼프대통령과 맺은 훌륭한 친분관계와 대통령에 대한 신뢰의 감정이 이번 고위급회담을 비롯한 앞으로의 대화과정을 통하여 더욱 공고화되리라는 기대와 확신을 표명하시였다.

Chairman Kim Jong Un expressed his hope and conviction that the excellent personal relations and his feelings of trust forged with President Trump at the Singapore summit would be further consolidated through the process of this and other future dialogues.

그러나 미국측은 싱가포르수뇌상봉과 회담의 정신에 배치되게 CVID요,신고요,검증이요 하면서 일방적이고 강도적인 비핵화요구만을 들고나왔다.

But, contrary to the spirit of the [agreed upon provisions of] the Singapore summit, the U.S. side came out only with unilateral and strong-arm demands for denuclearization, that is, calling only for CVID, declaration and verification.

정세악화와 전쟁을 방지하기 위한 기본문제인 조선반도평화체제구축문제에 대하여서는 일절 언급하지 않고 이미 합의된 종전선언문제까지 이러저러한 조건과 구실을 대면서 멀리 뒤로 미루어놓으려는 립장을 취하였다.

The U.S. side never mentioned the issue of establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula which is essential for preventing the deterioration of the situation and preventing war. It took the position that it could delay the agreed-upon statement to end the war with sundry conditions and excuses.

종전선언을 하루빨리 발표할데 대한 문제로 말하면 조선반도에서 긴장을 완화하고 공고한 평화보장체제를 구축하기 위한 첫 공정인 동시에 조미사이의 신뢰조성을 위한 선차적인 요소이며 근 70년간 지속되여온 조선반도의 전쟁상태를 종결짓는 력사적과제로서 북남사이의 판문점선언에도 명시된 문제이고 조미수뇌회담에서도 트럼프대통령이 더 열의를 보이였던 문제이다.

The issue of announcing the declaration of the end of war at the earliest possible date, is the [key] priority process [necessary] to defuse tension and establish a lasting peace regime on the Korean peninsula. It is the priority factor in building trust between the DPRK and the U.S. This issue was also stipulated in Panmunjom Declaration as the historical task to terminate the nearly 70-year-old condition of war on the Korean peninsula. President Trump, too, was more enthusiastic about this issue at the DPRK-U.S. summit talks.

미국측이 회담에서 끝까지 고집한 문제들은 과거 이전 행정부들이 고집하다가 대화과정을 다 말아먹고 불신과 전쟁위험만을 증폭시킨 암적존재이다.

The issues the U.S. side insisted on till the very end at the talks are a cancerous [i.e. destructive] entity [position], which previous administrations also had stubbornly insisted on, that sabotaged the dialogue process, and increased distrust and the danger of war.

미국측은 이번 회담에서 합동군사연습을 한두개 일시적으로 취소한것을 큰 양보처럼 광고했지만 총 한자루 페기하지 않고 모든 병력을 종전의 자기 위치에 그대로 두고있는 상태에서 연습이라는 한개 동작만을 일시적으로 중지한것은 언제이건 임의의 순간에 다시 재개될수 있는 극히 가역적인 조치로서 우리가 취한 핵시험장의 불가역적인 폭파페기조치에 비하면 대비조차 할수 없는 문제이다.

The U.S. side, during the talks, made a great publicity about suspension of one or two joint military exercises as a tremendous concession. But the temporary suspension of single exercise-type action is a highly reversible step which can be resumed immediately at any moment as all of its military force remains in its previously positioning, with not a single rifle removed. This is incomparable with the irreversible steps taken by us to explode and dismantle our nuclear testing site.

회담결과는 극히 우려스러운것이라고 하지 않을수 없다.

We cannot but be extremely worried about the outcomes of the talks.

미국측이 조미수뇌상봉과 회담의 정신에 부합되게 건설적인 방안을 가지고 오리라고 생각했던 우리의 기대와 희망은 어리석다고 말할 정도로 순진한것이였다.

One could say we were naïve to the point of foolishness in our expectation and hope that the US would come forth with a constructive proposals in accordance with the spirit of the US-NK summit meeting.

낡은 방식으로는 절대로 새것을 창조할수 없으며 백전백패한 케케묵은 낡은 방식을 답습하면 또 실패밖에 차례질것이 없다.

Tired, old methods can never create new outcomes. Only failure comes from following proven-to-fail, worn out methods.

조미관계력사상 처음으로 되는 싱가포르수뇌회담에서 짧은 시간에 귀중한 합의가 이룩된것도 바로 트럼프대통령자신이 조미관계와 조선반도비핵화문제를 새로운 방식으로 풀어나가자고 하였기때문이다.

Because President Trump himself proposed that US-NK relations and denuclearization of the peninsula be resolved in a new fashion, for the first time in US-NK relations, a valuable agreement was reached in a very short time.

쌍방이 수뇌급에서 합의한 새로운 방식을 실무적인 전문가급에서 줴버리고 낡은 방식에로 되돌아간다면 두 나라 인민의 리익과 세계의 평화와 안전을 위한 새로운 미래를 열어나가려는 수뇌분들의 결단과 의지에 의하여 마련되였던 세기적인 싱가포르수뇌상봉은 무의미해지게 될것이다.

The historic Singapore summit—achieved by the determination and the will of its top leaders to open a new future for the peace and benefit of the whole world—will become pointless, if working-level groups renege on the mutually agreed new approach agreed at the summit, and return to the old methods.

이번 첫 조미고위급회담을 통하여 조미사이의 신뢰는 더 공고화되기는커녕 오히려 확고부동했던 우리의 비핵화의지가 흔들릴수 있는 위험한 국면에 직면하게 되였다.

These first DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, rather than consolidating trust, have brought us face-to-face with a dangerous situation where our unshakable will for denuclearization might waiver.

우리는 지난 몇달동안 할수 있는 선의의 조치들을 먼저 취하면서 최대의 인내심을 가지고 미국을 주시하여왔다.

In the past few months, we exercised maximum forbearance and observed the U.S. while initiating as many goodwill measures as we could.

그러나 미국은 우리의 선의와 인내심을 잘못 리해한것 같다.

But, it seems that the U.S. misunderstood our goodwill and forbearance.

미국은 저들의 강도적심리가 반영된 요구조건들까지도 우리가 인내심으로부터 받아들이리라고 여길 정도로 근본적으로 잘못된 생각을 하고있다.

The U.S. is fundamentally mistaken in its reasoning if it goes so far as to conclude that its demands—reflecting its strong-arm mindset—would be accepted by us out of our forbearance.

조미사이의 뿌리깊은 불신을 해소하고 신뢰를 조성하며 이를 위해 실패만을 기록한 과거의 방식에서 대담하게 벗어나 기성에 구애되지 않는 전혀 새로운 방식으로 풀어나가는것,신뢰조성을 앞세우면서 단계적으로 동시행동원칙에서 풀수 있는 문제부터 하나씩 풀어나가는것이 조선반도비핵화실현의 가장 빠른 지름길이다.

Dispelling deep-rooted mistrust, and building trust between the DPRK and the U.S. seeking to resolve the problem in completely new way—by boldly breaking away from past methods and being unconstrained by conventional methods that have only resulted in failure; prioritizing trust-building while solving one-by-one problems that can be solved through a step-by-step process, [based on the] principle of simultaneous [reciprocal] actions: this is the fastest fastest shortcut to denuclearization.

그러나 미국측이 조바심에 사로잡혀 이전 행정부들이 들고나왔던 낡은 방식을 우리에게 강요하려 한다면 문제해결에 아무런 도움도 주지 못할것이다.

But, if the US, sized by a sense of urgency [impatience], tries to enforce on us, the old ways asserted by previous administrations, this will not give us any help in solving the problem.

우리의 의지와는 별개로 비핵화실현에 부합되는 객관적환경이 조성되지 못한다면 오히려 좋게 시작된 쌍무관계발전의 기류가 혼탕될수 있다.

If the objective conditions conducive to denuclearization in accordance with our wills are not established, then it’s possible that the currents of positive development in developing bilateral relations in the beginning could become confused [turbulent].

역풍이 불기 시작하면 조미량국에는 물론 세계평화와 안전을 바라는 국제사회에도 커다란 실망을 안겨줄수 있으며 그렇게 되면 서로가 필경 다른 선택을 모색하게 되고 그것이 비극적인 결과에로 이어지지 않으리라는 담보는 어디에도 없다.

Should opposing winds start to blow, this could bring great disappointment to an international society that desires peace and security, as well as to the US and NK; and if that happens, then both sides would start to explore other options; there is no guarantee that this would not lead to tragic consequences.

우리는 트럼프대통령에 대한 신뢰심을 아직 그대로 간직하고있다.

We still faithfully maintain our trust in President Trump.

미국은 수뇌분들의 의지와는 달리 역풍을 허용하는것이 과연 세계인민들의 지향과 기대에 부합되고 자국의 리익에도 부합되는것인가를 심중히 따져보아야 할것이다.

The U.S. should reflect seriously whether, in opposition to the will of its [own] leaders, permitting these opposing forces (“winds”) meets the aspirations and expectations of the people of the world, and whether it meets the interests of its own country.

주체107(2018)년 7월 7일
평 양(끝)

Juche Year 107 (2018), July 7th
PyongYang (end)

  1. KCNA seems to have used this word, but its translations often contain context-free and connotation-blind malapropisms, that should be taken with a grain of salt; for example, it states, “captivated in a fidget” when it means “seized by impatience.”

Destiny and Daring: South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s Impossible Journey Towards Peace

South Korean President Moon Jae-In

The South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, has been a discreet if powerful mover in the recent détente and peace-building process between North and South Korea and the US.  If the momentum of the Panmunjom Declaration and the successful summit between the DPRK and the US are continued, then promising outcomes are possible: peace and denuclearization of the peninsula, economic reintegration, diplomatic normalization, possible future confederation, and fundamental geopolitical shift.  What bodes well is that the people of South Korea have extraordinary confidence in President Moon Jae and his policies.  This much loved and respected individual is someone who has spent a lifetime achieving extraordinary outcomes while struggling against impossible, unbelievable odds.

The following passages in block quotes are some vignettes (in his own words, lightly annotated or edited for clarity) extracted from his modest, understated autobiography, Destiny, written in 2011, that give us some insights into this extraordinary leader and human being.

Rich Tigers and Starving Dogs:

In 1972, the South Korean military dictator Park Chung Hee—a former Japanese colonial collaborator—directed his secret police to rewrite South Korea’s authoritarian constitution.  The result, known as the Yushin [“revitalizing reform”] constitution, was a totalitarian document cribbed in title, content, and spirit from the Imperial Meiji Constitution of the Japanese Empire.  This constitution granted Park the South Korean presidency for life, along with powers comparable to the Japanese Showa Emperor.

Sodaemun Prison was an infamous prison constructed by the Japanese 1907 to imprison and torture Korean independence activists during their long colonization of Korea.  After the Japanese left, the South Korean military dictatorship—created from whole cloth from former Japanese collaborators by a cold war US caretaker government—used it to imprison many South Korean activists fighting for democratic reform–in continuity with the habits of their former colonial masters.  When popular protests broke out against this 1972 constitutional coup, Park Chung Hee imprisoned and tortured its key leaders.  Moon Jae-In was one of the student activist leaders imprisoned in Sodaemun Prison for protesting the Yushin “reforms”.  Here he describes his experiences in Prison.

In the Prison, there were two types of prisoners. “Tiger fur” prisoners, and “dog fur” prisoners.

Dogs and Tigers had a different prison lives.  In no other place in the world does the power of wealth manifest itself so nakedly.  In our cell, half of the prisoners were “tiger furs”, and the others were “dog furs”, and so I inadvertently got some of the benefits of the tigers, for example, tiger cells and dog cells got different amounts of time to use the washing facilities in the morning.

Everyone in my cell called me student, and treated me well. I had been a 4th year law student, when I was arrested, and I had passed the first level of the bar exam, so I helped cell mates write appeals or legal briefs. Word got out, and prisoners in other cells also asked me to help.

There is something I can’t forget from my life in prison. At the time, near the prison, there were many pigeons, and often they would settle in the yard. When I was bored, I would watch them from above. There were also inmates who would throw leftover food to the doves.  In our cell, there were many tigers, and they would purchase “private meals”. They would also buy snacks between meals–dry wheat crackers, which when mixed with margarine and egg yolk, making a sort of cream–was worth eating.

So naturally, the [unappetizing] “government food” [i.e. prison food] would be left over. So I would collect it and toss it to the pigeons.

As that continued, the pigeons would start to gather near our cell at regular times. But whenever I threw out the food, the young boys being held in the children’s block, would scurry towards the windows of their cells and watch the pigeons fight it out amongst themselves for food scraps. First, I thought they were watching for the sheer spectacle of it. But I was wrong. They weren’t watching it for fun.  I was told that they were pained and regretful at the food scraps that were being wasted on the pigeons, food that they would have liked to eat themselves. I was shocked, ashamed, and remorseful.

All the young boys were “dogs”, so all the food they got was “government food” and that was all, and so they were all starving.  After that, I got the cooperation of my cellmates to always leave untouched a few of the “government meals”, and to send them whole over to the boy’s block.

Theater of Cruelty

After serving time in Prison for his anti-government activism, Moon was forcibly conscripted into the South Korean Military.  After basic training, he was sent into the Special Forces Warfare Brigade (1st Paratroop Brigade) led by a General Chun Doo Hwan.  A close retainer of Park Chung Hee, Chun would later take power as the military dictator in a coup in December of 1979 after the assassination of Park, and rule the county with an iron fist until 1987.  Along the way, Chun would declare martial law, imprison tens of thousands off the street into “Triple Purification Re-education Camps”, and would unleash tanks and helicopter gunships on the citizen protestors in the City of Gwangju. Activists leading up to, and after this period, even after they had finished their prison sentences, were often conscripted into the military for further long term re-education though brutal military training, a form of prolonged conversion torture—Special Forces divisions had casualty rates of 25%. Moon talks here about the last days of basic training.

To uncover beatings, a supervising division inspector would come unannounced, and inspect recruits’ behinds for bruises inflicted with (baseball) bats. Mindful of this, our trainers wouldn’t beat our behinds, but beat us on the soles of our feet instead. Being beaten on the soles of the feet is many times more painful than being beaten on the behind. Because I had been designated a senior squad leader, every time any member of our platoon made a mistake, I was beaten. So I received the bastinado* a lot.

[*Bastinado, Falanga, Falaka, Beating or flogging of the feet, is a humiliating and excruciating form of punishment and is widely recognized as a form of torture. Often associated with the Third Reich, and Middle Eastern dictatorships, it uses the exquisitely pressure-sensitive nerves of the foot that balance the body to inflict unremitting, excruciating, crippling pain].

As basic training evaluation time approached, our boot camp drill instructors threatened us. “If you write something [negative] on your “wish list” [evaluations], we will do an analysis of the handwriting, and we will find you and make your life unbearable.” With a couple of days before the end of our basic training, the upper division inspector came over to conduct a training evaluation. The inspector chased out all the drill assistants, handed out sheets of paper, and asked us write down everything that had been troubling, difficult, everything that could be improved, and to list all the incidents of beatings and other violations that we had suffered or observed. When everyone hesitated, the inspector said with convincing sincerity, “Your basic training has ended, but if there are things that should be fixed, please list them, so those who come behind you will not suffer the same difficulties and indignities, and our military will be able to develop into a better military”.

When the active service soldiers started to rubberneck around us, the inspector chased them out with loud, scolding words.  “It will be all anonymous, so there will be no repercussions”, he said.  “Your trainers will have intimidated you, but they will never see any of the content, so no need to worry”.  Reassured by the reassuring atmosphere, most of the trainees started to write.  Actually, to tell the truth, we could have written pages upon pages, and still not exhausted all the abuses.

But as soon as the inspectors left, the drill assistants rushed into the space, carrying the very papers we had just written.  It was a complete set up.  The remainder of the time we underwent “energetic reunification”*.  They stated that they would flush out those who had alleged serious abuses, creating an atmosphere of terror.  The next day, the “evaluators” came out again for the “wish list”.  They repeated the same things, created the same reassuring atmosphere. These were the actual inspectors.   But no one was going for it this time.  No one wrote a word.

[*”Kihap” or ”Energetic reunification” is an Orwellian South Korean euphemism for corporal punishment, derived from Japanese military training that uses physical mortification as a way of “rectifying disunified [martial] energy”. South Korea’s government, with its Japanese colonial collaborators and officers, its military culture was likewise derived from Japanese military training and ideologies].

Frozen

5 years later, in 1979, after prison and military service, Moon finally returned to college.  The dictator, Park Chung Hee, whose government had put him in prison, had been assassinated by his own chief of secret police (KCIA) in the prelude to a drunken orgy, as they argued over how violently to suppress civilian protests.  Chun, the general who had led the special warfare brigade where Moon had been a conscript, had taken power in a military coup, and the county was awash with protest and demonstrations against yet another military dictatorship.  When protests escalated, Martial Law was declared, and Moon was arrested again.

I knew it in my bones. Even during martial law, some street protests had been allowed [as an escape valve], and the military had not entered university campuses, but this time, the military was going to go into the campuses and really laying down the law. I told my wife on the bus, “As soon as we get back home, I am going to have to go temporarily into hiding. If that happens, don’t be ashamed.”  It was a naïve wish.

The moment we got off the bus to the entrance to the [family] farm, 5 or 6 burly toughs surrounded us, pointing guns.  They shouted, “Freeze.  Hands up.  You’re Moon Jae-In, right?”.   They were detectives from the Chungnyangni police station who had been waiting to arrest me.

“Can I see your warrant?” I said.

“F*** your warrant”, they said.  This is Martial Law, they shouted, and waved a paper stamped in red ink with the words “Martial Law Certificate”.

They were intimating that under Martial Law, the warrant system is suspended, and thus I should shut up and put up.  In front of the members of my family-in-law, hand cuffs were put on me, and I was put on a bus, and taken into detention at Chungnyangni police station in Seoul.

At that time, I had been living in a boarding house inside Kyunghee University.  The night before my apprehension, Martial Law troops had broken into the boarding house looking for me, and torn the place apart, including the women’s quarters. When they didn’t find me, detectives had gone to my in-law’s home in the morning, breaking in and kicking the place apart with their boots, and still not finding me, they had terrorized the only person there, my wife’s younger sister, a high school student into revealing that we had gone to the [in-law’s] farm on Gangwha Island. So there they were, at the entrance to the farm, having staked out the bus station the whole day, all the while snacking only on bread. In front of my mother and father-in-law, with guns pointed, they forced my hands up and cuffed me.  It was a truly humiliating moment. As I was being taken away, looking out the back of the bus, I could see that they were stunned, frozen in place, wordless.

Catalyst:

In January 1987, seven years into the Chun dictatorship, a student activist by the name of Park Jong Chul was waterboarded to death.  Ghosted away by the police in the middle of the night to one of south Korea’s many “Anti-Communist Interrogation Centers (i.e. torture chambers)” he had been tortured and waterboarded to death.  Although not an uncommon event at the time—thousands had been tortured, some of them to death–Police claimed he had died spontaneously from a heart attack but a coroner with unusual integrity had certified that he had died under torture.

Moon, in the meantime, had been re-released from prison, passed the bar exam, and finished training at the national law institute.  Despite graduating second in his class, because of his activist background, he was denied any opportunities within the judiciary or government.  Although receiving several offers from white shoe corporate law firms in Seoul, he turned them down to partner with one of the rare human rights and labor lawyers in the country, Roh Moo Hyun, who had made a name for himself fighting for the lost causes of tortured political prisoners. 

Roh Moo Hyun, Moon’s partner in crime–a self-taught lawyer with only high school diploma–would later become President of South Korea in 2003, and would invite Moon to be his chief of staff.  Moon would continue the Sunshine policy—the policy of rapprochement with North Korea, including the building of a collaborative business zone.  Roh would later be hounded to suicide by conservative forces, and in the wake of his death, Moon would re-enter politics, later riding the candle light revolution all the way to the presidency in 2017, a revolution in which 16 million people took to the streets to oust the last corrupt, reactionary, dictatorial vestiges of Park Chung Hee and his daughter.

In January 1987, the torture-homicide scandal of Seoul National University student, Park Jong Chul erupted. The police spokesman stated that when the interrogator slammed the table while asking questions, Park had made a sudden sound, and then had fallen down and died. The entire country erupted in fury. The southern city of Pusan was even more enraged. The victim was from Pusan.  The parents lived in Pusan. His 49th Day Departure Rites [Traditional Korean mourning customs believe that the spirit of the deceased remains on the earth for 49 days before departing for the spirit world; at this time, a final departure ceremony is held] The rage against the dictatorial oppression burned most fiercely in Pusan.

February 7th, “The National Committee for the Commemoration of Park Jong Chol” spearheaded a series of national events to remember Park Jong Chol. Counselor Roh and I were part of this preparation committee. The Pusan Region People’s Commemoration Event” was put together by this committee.

The commemoration venue was the Buddhist temple in the middle of the city, The Temple of Great Awakening–Dae Kak Sa.  But the police had hermetically sealed off the temple, and made it impossible to even approach the venue. Riot police had surrounded the temple in layered phalanxes, and citizens who were attempting entry were fired on with tear gas. A scrum of University students faced off against police, and shouted “Bring Back Jong Chul”, but were unable to make any headway into the temple.

We couldn’t just give up and retreat. The Pusan People’s Collective held an emergency assembly, and at the end of it, decided to meet in the street in front of the Pusan Nampodong Theater and conduct a simplified ceremony. Discreetly, people left and regrouped in front of the theater.

At the agreed upon time, 2pm, 300 citizens and students gathered, and held an abbreviated commemoration and rally. They sang the national anthem, protest songs, and gave speeches denouncing the dictatorship, and Counsellor Roh conducted the commemoration rituals. This was the first mass street rallies held since the massive 1979 Busan-Masan Democracy Protests [that triggered the assassination of Park Chung Hee]. In a short time, a multitude of citizens had joined the fray, and the streets were packed full.

Belatedly realizing what had happened, the police encircled the area, and then sent in the “white skull brigade” [Martial arts trained riot police specializing in violent protest suppression—snatching leaders and cracking skulls]. In order to protect the frightened citizens, the leaders of the Pusan Peoples’ Collective placed themselves as a barrier between the students and citizens and the police, sitting down in a long non-violent chain on the ground. Counselor Roh and I joined them.

The police started firing tear gas randomly at the seated protestors. There was no way to avoid it, so we quietly just took the shots.

Then the riot police hurtled towards us, breaking up our lines, snatching us up, and dragging us into the “chicken wire” buses [buses used to detain and transport protestors, with chicken wire over the windows].  Because of the tear gas, even after we were in the buses, we couldn’t open our eyes for a long time.  We were taken over to the Pusan region Anti-Communist Interrogation Center.  That day, after we successfully held our abbreviated ceremony, even after we were apprehended, 10,000 people came out to protest, long into the evening.  This was the beginning of the end, the catalyst for the June protests.

In June of 1987, millions of South Koreans took to the streets—the largest street protests in modern history—and brought down the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan.

South Korea’s Artist Blacklist

Question: What do a brilliant feminist novelist, a cutting-edge film director, and a Nobel-nominated poet have in common, in South Korea?

Answer: They are, of course, all world-class artists in their fields. They were also among the almost ten thousand artists revealed to be black-listed by the South Korean Government. A hundred page document originating from the South Korean president’s office, revealed by the Hankook Ilbo, listed these 9473 artists as targets to be surveilled, starved of financial and logistical support. Instructions were given that these artists e “punished” and “intimidated”.

Film director Park Chan Wook is probably the best internationally known on this list. A cinematic prodigy and aesthetic visionary in his own right, his Cannes’ award winning Old Boy is a hallucinatory epic of survival, resistance, and revenge. Kafka meets Sophocles and Aeschylus in the streets of modern day Seoul, the film tells a tale of arbitrary imprisonment, the torturing of victims to madness—the madness of an incestuously violent authoritarian state—and forgetting. It’s most clearly a metaphor for the South Korea of the Park-Chun-Noh era, during the developmental dictatorship of the collaboratoriat, when innocent people disappeared off the streets for no good reason, and the entire country was under lock down, surveillance, routinely gassed, and forced to undergo bad haircuts.

Han Kang is a masterful feminist writer, recent winner of the 2016 Man Booker award for the Vegetarian, a Kafkaesque critique of authoritarian patriarchy and its effects on the psyche and body of a young woman. She is the first Korean writer to win a major international literary prize. Her real masterpiece, however, is the hard-to-bear, hard-to-market, heart-searing Human Acts, a luminous, haunting, textured denunciation of the US-enabled massacre of South Korean citizens in the city of Kwangju in 1980.

Ko Un is the most venerable; a deep, powerful visionary; the senior statesman of poetry and resistance of South Korea. Zen master, jazz-like vocal performer, and radical artistic revolutionary. He has quietly reinvented the idiom of Korean poetry while extending the meaning of literature beyond the realm of culture and politics. Short-listed at least 4 times for the Nobel prize in literature, Robert Hass referred to him as “one of the heroes of human freedom in this half century… somebody who has been equal to the task [of history], a feat rare among human beings.”

Countless thousands with talent, artistry, or integrity were on the black list.

This begs, the question, why? Why hound and destroy artists, cultural workers, visionaries?

What were their sins and trespasses?

On Thought Crimes and Punishments

The list makes no bones about its reasons: 594 were blacklisted for opposing a government enforcement ordinance about the sinking of a ferry. 754 were put on the list for petitioning the government to investigate and take responsibility.

In 2014, a ferry, the MV Sewol, overloaded with iron rebar for the construction of a US-involved military base on Jeju Island, sank abruptly, killing 304 people, most were young students on a field trip. Flaunting neoliberal deregulation while kowtowing to geopolitical pressure to build the base, the Sewol ferry was a disaster waiting to happen, a symbol of the ship of state gone far astray. The petition asked—legitimately—to discover the causes of the sinking, and for the government to take responsibility.

Another 8125 artists and cultural figures were put on this blacklist for the inexcusable thought crimes of supporting opposition candidate Moon Jae In in his 2012 presidential bid or for supporting the current Seoul Mayor Park Won soon.

A large swathe of the artistic and cultural class were thus designated as enemies of the state.

Those placed on the blacklist were made ineligible for government funding, subjected to tax audits, prevented from exhibiting or screening at government sponsored or public events, put under surveillance, harassed, threatened, starved of resources. Some of them became literally untouchable–the noted activist painter Hong Sung-dam, best known for his extraordinary woodblocks about the Gwang Ju massacre and his censorship from the Gwangju Biennale, found that no logistics company would ship his paintings to Germany, where he had been invited to exhibit at the Prestigious Berlin Arts Festival. He had to recreate his paintings from scratch on site.

The Busan Film festival, the largest Asian cinema gathering, comparable to the Cannes Film Festival, found itself defunded and consigned to a cultural sink hole after it attempted to screen the documentary: The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, a hard-hitting investigative documentary about the sinking of the ferry. The Mayor of Busan, attempted to stop the Festival from screening; local film makers organized protests at the interference, and the film was screened anyway. Drastic budget cuts and unprecedented audits hit the festival afterwards. Cinema Dal, the courageous distributor, was excluded from state funding and audited; even the cellphone records of employees were investigated. Cinema Dal is struggling, like the doomed Sewol Ho, to stay afloat. Other like-minded distributors, like AtNineFilm, the distributors of Namyeong Dong 1985, the story of the arrest and torture of activist Kim Kun-tae, were also defunded.

To understand, we need to look at history.

Killing Art, and the Art of Killing:

To break these foreign forces, these compradors, this betrayal,
to sweep up this division and this fascism,
to achieve our independence,
our equality, and our reunification,
buried deep in this history…

We will fight, dead.
We will fight, feverishly living.
Oh, dead fighters, friends,
a hundred years of struggle is not over yet.

— Ko Un

The modern South Korean state, was artificially and brutally constructed to prevent and suppress the emergence of an indigenous, populist, democratic nation state. In 1945, after liberation from Japanese colonization, thousands of peoples’ committees, representing millions of koreans, united to form a populist socialist government, and constituted the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). The caretaker US government in the south banned the KPR, and violently repressed its leaders, labor unions, and peasant cooperatives. Instead it, put into power the dregs of the Japanese colonial apparatus, creating a semi-vassal state malleable to its geopolitical designs. This state, illegitimate at its conception, has had a long, dark history of punishing, terrorizing, and torturing those who oppose the government. It’s also had a penchant for creating and maintaining long lists of “subversives” for punishment, erasure, and extermination.

One of the founding stains of this Korean state were the Bodo League registrations of 1949, where “leftist sympathizers” were told to register in exchange for “guidance” and amnesty. These registrations were a redux—down to the very name–of the punitive Japanese colonial era registrations. Most of the “leftists” dragooned into signing onto these lists were apolitical, impoverished peasants and artists recruited to fill mandated quotas. A year after collating these lists, as civil war crested into war, the South Korean government lined up the Bodo League registrants and shot them en masse, burying them—dead and alive-in miles upon miles of makeshift trenches. Near the coast, they were shot and dumped out to sea. The scale of killing was so vast and extensive that the Okinawan coast line, five hundred miles away, was littered with corpses; the Japanese government apparently lodged a complaint that their beaches were awash with korean bodies. In this fashion, and within a few short weeks, some 200,000—higher estimates say up to 1.2 Million innocents–were exterminated, making the Bodo League Massacres the world’s fastest—and least acknowledged– genocide of the 20th century. These atrocities, witnessed, facilitated and green-lighted by the US military, were then filmed and attributed to “communists”.

More directly related to current events, Park Chung Hee, the father of the current president, was a Japanese collaborator who took power in 1961, and ran the country like a personal brothel and a labor concentration camp. Despite western attempts to portray the country as a developmental miracle, the entire country, during most of the Park Era, was an economic runt, fenced in and run like a concentration camp modelled after the Japanese Imperial colony, Manchukuo, where Park had cut his teeth as a counterinsurgency officer against anti-colonial guerillas. Park copied the model of colonized Manchukuo, recreating a totalitarian state driven by forced labor, developmental prostitution, and sub-contracted military adventurism (in Vietnam).

With tightly sealed borders—only select people could obtain passports to travel—some attempted to escape to North Korea–a more prosperous, more egalitarian country at the time. These people were invariably shot to death at the borders by the South Korean military. Those who criticized or protested the government were routinely charged with being North Korean subversives, spies, and sympathizers, and were summarily arrested, tortured, imprisoned, or killed.

Tens of thousands of students, artists, labor organizers, were arrested, rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared during this era; millions were terrorized. It was, despite propaganda and revisionism to the contrary, Korea’s darkest, ugliest, most sordid period.

During this period, criticism of the government was almost unthinkable; the arts were stifled almost into oblivion; and even failure to be sufficiently sycophantic was the kiss of death for artists.

Dying for Art: Little Deaths and Big Deaths

I wait for time to wash me away like muddy water.
I wait for death to come and wash me clean,

To release me from the memory of those other squalid deaths, which haunt my days and nights. I fight with the fact of my humanity. I fight with the idea that death is the only way of escaping this fact.

– Han Kang, Human Acts

Shin Jung Hyun, the father of Korean Rock, often referred to as South Korea’s Jimi Hendrix or Elvis, is probably the most talented musician you have probably never heard of. As South Korea’s (and at the time, one of the world’s) most virtuoso guitarists, he was commissioned by Park Chung Hee to write a piece praising Park. Instead he wrote a gauzy, trippy, moody, Doors-like piece of psychedelia extolling the natural beauties of the country. He was blacklisted, surveilled, eventually arrested, and his career and life was effectively consigned to oblivion. Shin was one of the lucky ones.

Other artists were not so fortunate. In 1968, the South Korean government rounded up 200 academics, poets, artists, and musicians, and accused them of being North Korean sympathizers and spies. This included the avant-garde composer Yun Isang—inventor of the compositional technique of Hauptton—who was kidnapped in Berlin, hustled back to Korea, and promptly sentenced to death, then life imprisonment. This entire “East Berlin Spy Incident” was later acknowledged to be a complete and total fabrication of the South Korean intelligence services. Yun, released only after massive international outcry, was exiled to Germany, and lived the rest of his life out in shattered, broken, isolated despair.

Female actresses, dancers, and performers were also routinely rounded up by the KCIA, less for anything they had done, but because they had caught the wandering eye of President Park. They would then be required to “entertain”, his “most noble presidential excellency” at one of the KCIA-run “safe houses”–gaudy pleasure palaces with oversize beds designed for presidential orgies. A black KCIA limousine would roll up like a terrifying hearse at the victim’s house; the actress or performer would be told that they had 15 minutes to doll up and present themselves; they would then be whisked to one of Park secret residences for their assignation. Failure to comply with Park’s droit de seigneur ended up badly for actresses or their families. One noted example, Kim Sam Hwa, a celebrated screen beauty and renowned traditional dancer, caught the lascivious eye of Park. A happily married mother with an infant baby, when she balked at the relationship with Park, her husband was spirited away. When he returned, he claimed, blind terror in his voice, that he had been to a “terrible, unimaginable place”, and that he needed to separate from her. He vanished the next day, leaving a note: “My love, they’ve come to take me away. I have to go. Please don’t look for me. That’s the only way for you and me to survive. Take care of our child. Far in the future, I will see you again. I love you”. He never was seen again; Kim never acted again, and was eventually sent into exile after Park tired of using her. Park’s own final karmic comeuppance happened at a safe house, when a singer and a drama student who had been procured for his sexual needs, witnessed the penetration of his body with lead bullets fired by their procurer, the head of the KCIA. Thus with a bang, and a whimper, South Korea’s Caligula passed ignominiously away; more generals would promptly fill his shoes.

Artists during this period were seen simply as servants of presidential power or pleasure; film and culture in this period were used as propaganda tools to maintain control of the populace, promote development objectives, and justify the authoritarian dictatorship. Art critic Kai Hong argues that during this period, South Korea exercised the strictest censorship of any country in the world. It’s clear that it also exercised some of the most arbitrary, perverse and terrifying.

The Prince of Darkness: “Make Them Afraid”

Anyone loitering at the seaside early in the morning,
anyone who laughs for no reason
at the sight of someone, anyone, all are spies. Report them.
Report them and earn a reward that will change your luck.

– Ko Un

During this dark, violent era of Park Chung Hee, a prosecutor by the name of Kim Ki-choon, played a key role in the architecture of terror that enabled the persecution of “subversives” and artists. A young but stellar legal mind—nicknamed “Kim Smarty Pants”—he was the key drafter and enforcer of South Korea’s dictatorial 1972 “Yushin Constitution”, a totalitarian document that made Park Chung Hee dictator for life and consolidated his reign of terror within an imperial executive. In particular, Kim is considered responsible for drafting the sections that conferred absolute emergency powers to the president, and the right to appoint a third of the national assembly and dissolve it on a whim, according him powers comparable to the Japanese Emperor during the Showa-era Empire. Kim also served as the grand inquisitor of the Anti-communist Investigation Bureau of South Korea’s horrific gestapo, the KCIA, which operated 30 torture centers across the country, and which, day and night, arbitrarily detained, tortured, imprisoned, and disappeared thousands of people that criticized, crossed, or simply displeased the government.

He also served as prosecutor general, justice minister, and then Saenuri (GNP) Party lawmaker from 1996-2008. Never one to let by an opportunity for bullying, Kim led the impeachment of the much-beloved civil rights-lawyer-turned-progressive-president Roh Moo-hyun on trumped up charges. Last but not least, Kim was one of the “Group of Seven Mentors”, a shadowy cabal of powerful consigliori who brought Park Geun Hye, Park Chung Hee’s daughter into national politics in a 2007 presidential bid.

This same Kim Ki-choon, later became the current president Park Geun Hye’s chief of staff. Kim has now been fingered as the author of this current blacklist, which was circulated to the Korean Film Institute, the Korea Arts Institute, and the Ministry of Arts, Culture, and Sports. According to Yoo Jin-ryong, former minister of culture, the list was masterminded by Kim Ki-choon from the president’s office. Reprising a paranoid page from his days as KCIA inquisitor, when he hounded and framed critics as traitorous leftist spies, it’s reported that Kim called for a “combative response to leftists in the cultural and art circles” and ordered aides to “uncover their networks.” He described progressive teachers and journalists as “poisonous mushrooms” to be extirpated; gave explicit “instructions to punish artists who satirized President Park” and to “conduct a “loyalty checks” of government officials”. He also directed staff to “intimidate” courts of law; and to “induce” scholars to write pro-government newspaper articles.

“Make them afraid”, said Kim. Many, indeed, were—and still are—afraid.

Crashing the Korean Wave

This approach was a 180 degree departure from the previous progressive administrations of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, which had liberalized artistic production, relieving it from the toxic and stultifying culture of control of the prior military dictatorships. Presidents Kim and Roh had actively supported and nurtured the development of the culture industry, seeing it not only as part of necessary political liberalization, but also as strategic economic development. In particular, President Kim Dae Jung designated cultural production—film, broadcasting, gaming, music–and related technology, media, and communication industries, and their export–as designated growth engines for the Korean economy. He also set up a vast range of agencies and councils to promote the development of culture, along with multiple funding streams and sponsorships of large public promotional events; universities and colleges were also funded and encouraged to produce creative talent.

By the early 2000s this strategy had yielded impressive results, as Korean cultural products—film, music, television shows progressively swept China, Japan, Taiwan, and then global markets (Latin America, Europe), in what was named the “Korean wave” or “Hallyu”. Within a short decade, the revenue of the culture industry increased five-fold from $600 M to $3.2 B. South Korean television, music, and art were increasingly seen as the leading edge of Asian culture, and some of the most innovative and visionary cinema of the decade was made by Korean artists, many of whom were creatively processing the nightmares of the dictatorships.

The Park-Choi-Kim blacklist and its regressive cultural agenda is clearly a reversion to the Park Chung Hee era, when cultural production was expressly controlled, managed, subordinated to, and exploited solely for political ends, and where all art and artists are required to be visibly and sycophantically supportive or subservient.

This Park I era was largely an arid desert of culture, notable for its bad taste, maudlin kitsch, and laugh out-loud propaganda, especially in cinema, where misogynistic soft-core pornography and manipulative nationalistic screeds were the order of the day.

In this new Park II era, Korean films of artistic merit have been sidelined or left unfunded, brilliant directors left scrambling for funding, while maudlin, nationalistic, and reactionary films, shows, and organizations have had money thrown at them. While the occasional political film—usually expressing itself through metaphor—squeaks through, and no end of creativity and artistry spared by individual artists, for the most part, the industry and media companies have been bullied, harassed (for example, the vice-chair of CJ media) at the whims and pleasures of the Park-Choi-Kim cabal. The rest—saccharine pop culture—apes the addictive, mind-rotting, formulaic spectacle-candy that passes as artistic production in the west. The Ministry of Culture, Art, and Sports has been treated as a toy bauble of Choi Soon-sil, its budgets and funding seemingly directed by an artistic nincompoop—Choi herself—or a variety of self-serving or vengeful hanger-ons. Even the Olympic medal-winning figure skater Kim Yu na—a paragon of elegant, generous, gracious celebrity, was reputed to be on a blue house black list, for having had the impertinence to refuse to participate in an idiotic exercise video created by Choi Soon-sil’s beau, Cha Eun taek.

Kim, Roh, and a generation of martyred artists must be banging on their coffins and turning in their shallow, unmarked graves.

The 18 Brumaire of Park Geun Hye

A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays
– Psy, Gang Nam Style

Kim Ki-choon is an old man now, sullen, defensive, slightly humbled, no longer the grand inquisitor of yore. During his interrogation in the Korean national assembly over the blacklisting, he did his best Eichmann impression, stumbling, fudging, and stonewalling, claiming that he was an “old man” with a “bad memory”, and “unaware that the list was illegal”. Still, it’s unlikely that Kim will go the way of the students, poets and artists he blacklisted and persecuted in the Park Era: to prison, to oblivion, or the gallows. Clearly, he still has his bones, fingernails, orifices, and wits intact, and he is still surrounded by powerful people and forces.

Nevertheless, this partial revealing and unraveling of the Park II administration—the ignominious 18th Brumaire of Park Geun Hye—is a sweet moment of karmic redress. If Kim is convicted—for abuse of power–, it will be belated, minimal, a slap on the wrist compared to the enormity of his iniquities, but still poetic justice for one of South Korea’s most infamous inquisitors and reactionaries. At the current moment, he and his angel-faced minister of culture, Cho Yun-soon, have been arrested for authoring the blacklist, but the list itself may reach all the way to Choi Soon-sil. Kim and Cho themselves are but one of the many tentacles of a vast-reaching corruption scandal involving the current president, the major corporations of South Korea, and the mysterious confidante-cum-Shaman, Choi Soon-sil, and her cronies. Old friends since the days of the dictatorship, it appears that Park suffered Choi Soon-sil, her close confidante, to edit speeches, dictate policy, game the presidency for private enrichment and personal gain, and to yank around the country’s artists, culture industry, and corporations on a whim, underscoring the irrational, incestuous, and superstitious foundation underlying South Korea’s neofascist capitalist order.

This regressive, neoliberal Park-Choi-Kim tendency could probably have gotten away with most of it; slowly, cunningly, and incrementally dialing Korea back to the Yushin Era, had it not been for Choi Soon-sil’s overweening horseplay. Choi insisted on shaking down the Samsung corporation for million-dollar horses for her dressage-athlete daughter, forced them to pony up for the training, and, in a critical misstep, bullied an elite women’s college into admitting her ne’er-do-well daughter on an equestrian scholarship.

Unlike the US, where any rich fool and their idiot progeny can legally buy their way into an elite university, in South Korea, the tradition of meritocratic admission and success holds firm, dating back to a thousand-year legacy of Confucian bureaucratic exams. The myth of meritocratic, competitive examination system is probably the only thing that holds back a dam of incandescent rage against an otherwise intolerably stacked system of rampant exploitation, inequality, and elitist iniquity. Young people routinely refer to their country as a living hell, “Hell Josun”, lament their fate as proletarian “dirt spoons”; fully 80% of them wish to leave the country. In this country, where exams are so important that office hours are shifted and airlines banned from flying on the day of the college entrance examination, tampering with the admissions process and gaming college entrance was the one inexcusable, irredeemable, intolerable sin. It put the lie to the ideology of meritocratic reward, and released the flutter of indignation that became the storm that burst the dam of outrage wide open. All bets were off after that.

Millions of protestors—not just workers and farmers shafted by Park’s vicious neoliberal labor restructuring, or grieving parents from the ferry disaster–but livid young students and their entire extended families took to the streets, demanding the immediate resignation and arrest of Choi, Park, and their sundry cohorts. This pressure led to the resignation of the president of the university responsible for the admission, then to the investigation of Samsung, and through widening ripples and waves into a full-scale investigation into bribery and influence-peddling across the board. It resulted finally in the impeachment of President Park in the national assembly, unavoidable after two and half million people took to the streets to demand her resignation and her approval ratings flat-lined to zero percent. Weeks after her impeachment, people still take to the streets, by the hundreds of thousands—800,000 by the latest count—braving Siberian winds and icy snow drifts, to shout themselves blue in the face demanding her immediate removal and arrest. Park is now cloistered in the Blue House, evading questioning, trying to run down the clock, as a caretaker Prime Minister runs the country, and the constitutional court decides on her final fate. Tragedy, then farce, is the manure-inflected flavor of this particular Korean drama. A kingdom, for a horse, no less, Gangnam style.

The Poet’s List

If someone opens my grave a few years after my death, they will find it full, not of my bones, but of poems written in that tomb’s darkness”

– Ko Un

Ko Un, the poet, is a survivor’s survivor. He survived decades of harassment, torture, imprisonment, much of it from the minions, instruments, or institutions of Kim Ki-choon; many of Kim Ki-choon’s victims did not. Ko Un also survived his own mental breakdown, his self-mutilation, and miraculously, his own suicide.

Like Han Kang’s protagonist in Human Acts, he stacked dead and dying bodies during war; prefiguring the maddened protagonist in Old Boy, he poured poison into his ears to drown out the never-ending screams in his head. He took vows as a Zen monk, but decades of meditation were an insignificant balm against the roar of darkness in his heart; he attempted suicide. The immolation of the sweatshop worker Chun Tae-il in the seventies, who set his body ablaze as a protest against the conditions of factory work, awoke him from his self-pitying torpor, and he became active in a cultural resistance. For this, he suffered dearly.

Ko-un states he survived the harsh darkness of that era, through the act of remembering and imagining; by writing and creating art:

Deprived of present time in that despair, the incompetent act of remembering alone served as a substitute for the present time. I began to realise that remembering and imagining something could be a source of strength, enabling me to endure day by day the darkness and the fear.

To survive all that, and to be blacklisted yet again in his sunset years, is a final, perverse tribute to the person referred to as “South Korea’s greatest living poet”. But with his usual Zen aplomb, Ko Un remarks that he is “honored to be on the list”.

Ko Un, also has been keeping a list of names, half as long as the blacklist, but one that took much longer to compile. It is the 30 volume poem, Maninbo (Myriad Lives), written to render homage to every human being he had encountered up to the eve of his impending death.

In this poem, there are 5600 people; the poems rendering them flesh and life took him 30 years to complete.

Because there is night, there should also be stars. Underneath the starlight, lives the history behind my poetry. The isolation cell in the military prison was a closed space without windows, measuring 3 feet by 4.5 feet…. I had decided what my final gesture would be when the time came for me to die…

He would render tribute, “through the insufficient act of remembering”–through poetry–to every human being he had ever encountered.

Rarely are the contrasts as clear, or the stakes as high. One, a list put together by the powerful to blacken, destroy, and erase lives and livelihoods.

The other, an epic act of attention, love, and remembrance, words stitched and cobbled together over a lifetime, to enliven, lift up, fathom care and render voice to life:

Ko Un’s list has survived so far, shimmering points of light against a dark sky.

Kim’s list may yet be consigned to the dust heap.

The Korean people have no doubt which one has to prevail. The winds of history may yet be on their side.