The Korea Herald


Lyricist pays tribute to Korean War fallen with new song cycle of elegies

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : June 23, 2024 - 14:12

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Hahn Myung-hee in February 2024 (Republic of Korea Army 2nd Corps) Hahn Myung-hee in February 2024 (Republic of Korea Army 2nd Corps)

Ahead of the 74th anniversary of the Korean War, a new song cycle has been published to commemorate the fallen spirits and lingering pain of the war.

Hahn Myung-hee, the lyricist behind the beloved Korean art song "Bimok" (Wooden Epitaph), has compiled a series of poems inspired by the Korean War and the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas into a poignant collection titled “Thus the DMZ Speaks: A Song Cycle in Memory of the Korean War Dead.”

“Bimok” (1969) has been an iconic song for Koreans especially during the month of June, when the country honors its veterans and patriots through memorial services and ceremonies. The lyrist wrote the lyrics based on his military service as a guard post commander on the mid-slopes of Baegamsan, Gangwon Province. The area was a major site of the Battle of Kumsong, one of the last battles of the Korean War, fought shortly before the ceasefire in July 1953.

“It is unfortunate that tens of thousands of youths perished on the battlegrounds there,” Hahn, 85, told The Korea Herald, on Wednesday, over the phone.

“Also, there is no doubt that ‘Bimok’ was born in the lingering dust of war amidst the beautiful nature in the mountains of Gangwon Province,” recalled Hahn. “Ever since that time, the lush green of June has been entrenched with a dismal sense of grief in my mind. They say that nature is beautiful when the grass and tree are green, just as life is beautiful when you are young.”

Hahn was posted to the Gangwon Province guard post 11 years after the signing of the armistice, but the mountain still bore the scars of combats with remnants of cartridge belts, crumpled canteens, decayed ballistic fiber and pieces of broken gunstocks scattered around, he recalled.

The 85-year-old lyrist captured the majestic scenery of nature, the mountainous landscape and the sadness of war in battlefield elegies of 14 poems, which he started writing several years ago.

Each song is accompanied by a short recollection of his military experience, and a painting by artist Lee Dong-pyo, originally from Hwanghae Province in North Korea. Lee, who was forcefully recruited into the North Korean army and later defected to South Korea, has dedicated his art to war themes.

"Thus the DMZ Speaks" by Hahn Myung-hee (Ddabibatt)

In the book, Hahn also shares his memories of “Bimok.” While patrolling the mountains, he came across a small stone pile with a rotting wooden marker, which clearly had the mark of human hands. The sight of the nameless, humble grave, likely created by comrades who couldn't bear to leave a fellow soldier unburied, stayed with him and later inspired the lyrics for the lied.

After completing his military service, he worked as a producer in the music department of Tongyang Broadcasting Company, which later merged into KBS. Then, composer Chang Il-nam asked him to write some lyrics for several of his new songs, and together they released "Bimok" in 1969.

“It wasn't because I had extraordinary poetic inclinations, nor were my writing skills exceptional,” Hahn said. “I wrote the lyrics very easily, I just needed to piece together my fragmented emotions of those days.”

Hahn also served as a music professor at the University of Seoul (1985-2004) and as the director of the National Gugak Center (1997-1999). He was the vice president of the National Academy of Arts from 2013 to 2015.

"Thus the DMZ Speaks" is translated into English, Chinese and Japanese.

Twelve of the 14 poems have been set to music, and Hahn is working to publish a songbook.

Painting by Lee Dong-pyo for Hahn Myung-hee's poem Painting by Lee Dong-pyo for Hahn Myung-hee's poem "Contesting to Seat of Honor" (Ddabibatt)