[FOUNTAIN]Political Subversion by Laughter

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[FOUNTAIN]Political Subversion by Laughter

Comic storytelling in this part of the world in the 1970s was carried on the radio and on LP records. It was a form of entertainment popularized by individual performers who made big names in the genre.

The originator of our comedic tradition is widely regarded to be Shin Hong-shik, more popularly known by his stage name of Shin Bul-chul. Born 1905 in Gaeseong, now in North Korean territory just north of the border, he began with political satire targeted at colonial Japan, ruler of Korea in the early 20th century. In an early 1930s play in Seoul, he improvised the line, "The eastern sky is bright; let's all rise and fight for freedom in the country." He was dragged to the Jongno police station and beaten harshly. It would not be the last time he was arrested. He once even performed a satirical play grouping Hitler, Mussolini and Hideki Tojo, the Japanese wartime leader.

After the liberation in 1945, the left-leaning Shin Bul-chul had all the material he needed. He made a point of holding a free performance timed to the return to Korea of Syngman Rhee, later Korea's first president, to break up welcoming crowds. In 1946 he made fun of the Korean flag and got violently beaten for it by a rightist mob. That performance went something like this: In the middle of the flag is a circle divided into north and south. Surrounding the circle in the corners are four marks - the United States, Japan, China and the Soviet Union. So even the flag shows that the country's destiny is to be ruled by the four powers.

Shin took himself to North Korea in 1947 and was elected to the central committee of North Korean Federation of Culture and Arts. He was decorated and respected at first, but his artistic spirit could not be contained. After three detainments for sarcastic and satirical references to North Korean society, he was purged in 1962 as reactionary. The last we know of him is a sentence to forced labor in a cooperative farm.

The spirit of satirical comedy is often found in twists and turns and analogies and surprises. Politics has been a universally popular topic for comedians. In an authoritarian society, the place for political satire is naturally limited. In a way, Shin Bul-chul is a tragic artist who was deserted by South Korean politics and then suffocated by North Korean politics.

Yonhap News Agency reports that North Korea's Central News Agency has published a book of humor from around the world. It is certainly a rare occurrence. An unpublicized publication of humor for party officials was put out in the early 1980s. It will be interesting to see what is in the latest book, but as it is a state publication, we can perhaps forget about political satire.



The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Noh Jae-hyun

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