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[FOUNTAIN]Armbands and heady power

Mar 21,2003
Most of us here brandished an armband at least once during our school days. There used to be one for the kid in class whose turn it was to run errands, and the class representatives also wore them. The armband was an uncanny thing. It was just a band around the arm, but it had considerable power. It made kids horsing around turn quiet and smart. The normally quiet and shy kids became different people when they stood with the bands around their arms at the school gate for “discipline,” casting a watchful eye on their classmates coming to school. Should a fellow walk in with disheveled hair or an unkempt uniform, the quiet kid would, under the spell of the armband, jump at the victim and unleash a lecture.
Novelist Yoon Heung-gil humorously illustrated the mystery of the armband in his novel, “The Armband.” It is a satire on power that does not amount to a hill of beans. The book was recognized in 1983 by a major literary award, and was later adapted for a television miniseries.
In the book, Jong-sul was a thug until he was hired as the manager of a reservoir. Soon he was a merciless dictator, disciplining city people who stopped at the reservoir. But he soon met his end when he tried to stop the man who hired him from fishing. But Jong-sul still did not get the point until he was told off by a barmaid. “The armband is for the lowly, you fool!” she says. “Real power comes from the invisible armband worn by the boss!”
But the armbands of the Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution did turn the world upside down. They looted and murdered, but escaped condemnation by donning the armband and chanting slogans.
The Hitler Youth wore a signature armband with the swastika. They attacked Jews and Jewish-owned property.
Korea has had its share of armband-brandishing thugs in history. During the Korean War, the communists gave red armbands to thugs who persecuted and executed the gentry. Even today, people in many corners of our society express their power with armbands, including construction supervisors.
But there appears to be “invisible armbands” beyond what the barmaid spoke about in the novel. Those are persons who may have contributed to bringing this administration to power. The minister of culture and tourism who issued the new guidelines for journalists should take a look at his arm.


by Yoo Jae-sik

The writer is Berlin correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.


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