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.