The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Two inscrutable things in Korea for foreigners

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Nov. 20, 2018 - 17:14

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Famous American poet William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician, so he thought of poetry as spiritual medicine that healed wounded souls. Interestingly enough, his contemporary, poet Wallace Stevens, was a lawyer, so he thought of poetry as a quest for the order of the universe. Another American poet, T.S. Eliot, was a banker who regarded poetry as spiritual wealth and treasure.

Recently, one of my Spanish friends asked me, “In Korea, how could musicians hold a picket, demanding severer punishment of others? Aren’t musicians supposed to heal other people’s wounded souls, instead of hurting them?” I did not know what to say because I did not understand it myself. Then another Spanish friend of mine who had lived in Korea said, “In Korea, even poets do such a thing, not to mention performing artists.” Then he came up with his own diagnosis, which was quite persuasive. “I have the impression that Korean arts and literature are full of ‘han’ and ‘hanpuri.’”

Indeed, traditionally, such Korean arts as music, dance, theater and even poetry are often saturated with oppressed people’s “han” or grudges and resentment, and therefore served as a way of venting. The same goes for pansori and “madang-geuk” or “backyard theater,” two traditional Korean performing arts. They, too, served as outlets for lower-class people’s han toward the privileged ruling class. Such a tendency has sometimes contributed to the creation of superb satires, but often it has fostered works that are ideologically charged and politically engaged in Korea.

As for literature, there is a saying that Korean literature is “the literature of jeong and han.” That means Korean literature often turns emotional and ideological. It is no wonder, therefore, that literature often serves political ideologies in Korea, whether the North or the South. Perhaps that is why writers can be found frequently in presidential campaign camps during election seasons in Korea.

If you knew of this tendency of the Korean arts, then you would understand why many Korean artists are engaged in political and ideological issues, and are therefore hostile to others who do not agree with their ideological stances. In view of the circumstances, the arts in Korea have always been not so much spiritual medicine that heals wounded souls as weapons to fight against political foes and ideological enemies.

On the other side of the fence, there are writers and artists who think of the arts, including literature, as something sacred that cannot be contaminated by politics or reality. In the eyes of the pseudo-elite who worship obsolete modernism, the arts are sacred woods that common people are not allowed to enter. They do not realize that the act of writing is already a political act, and the arts are inevitably products of the social milieu from which they originated.

The problem with Korean literature is that it is divided into ideologically charged writers on the left and those who value art for art’s sake, pure literature, on the right. But the world has changed, and it cannot be simply divided into the left and the right, or pure arts and socially engaged ones. After all, artists and writers are those who have free souls, unchained by any political ideology or artistic chastity.

Of course, Korea has a number of stellar writers and artists who do not belong to any faction and who are free from political ideologies or obsession with purity of the arts and cultures. The problem is that even such writers have to pretend to subscribe to one of the two literary factions in order to survive because otherwise, they would not have a chance to publish their works in literary journals or to have them published by companies those dogmatic people run.

My Spanish friends also ask, “Why does the Korean government treat big business corporations such as Samsung as if they are arch-enemies?” Then, a series of questions follow, “Korea’s economy depends on exports. Why do you hate big corporations, instead of being ever grateful to them? Is it not true that they not only create numerous jobs and bring astronomical amounts of foreign currency to Korea through exports, but also significantly upgrade the image of Korea all over the world?” Indeed, Samsung and LG products are ubiquitous, undisputedly dominating the world’s electronics market in many categories these days.

However, we should know that Chinese electronics corporations are ready to take over positions that used to belong to Samsung. For example, Huawei, the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, right behind Samsung, is everywhere in Spain already. If Samsung is discouraged and shrinks back, products from other countries will dominate the international market. Surely, that is not what we want.

In the eyes of foreigners, Korea is hard to understand, an enigmatic country that relentlessly repeats its past mistakes. We should know that foreigners are watching us anxiously, full of worries. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.