[FOUNTAIN]A comedian loved by all

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[FOUNTAIN]A comedian loved by all

In June 1989, many Japanese grieved when Misora Hibary, who was called the "queen of Japanese blues" and considered the best postwar female singer, passed away. The Japanese media mourned her death as if it was a national tragedy. The Japanese government decorated her with an honorable citizen award.

In Nov. 1992, Yves Montand, a French actor and singer, famous in Korea for his song "Autumn Leaves," died in Paris. His passing headlined the French newspapers. The television networks aired special series to mourn Montand's death. The atmosphere in Paris was as sorrowful as when Charles de Gaulle died.

This month, many Koreans are bemoaning the loss of Lee Joo-il, who was considered Korea's "king of comedy." Newspapers and television stations are grieving over the late Mr. Lee, and there are many postings on the Internet. Regarding Mr. Lee's death, the ruling party and the opposition parties are in the same tune for the first time in a while. It is rare that most Koreans grieve over a loss of a popular artist, considering Korea's less-established cultural and artistic foundation.

Koreans might as well mourn for Mr. Lee's loss considering what they owe him. Mr. Lee's stammering and clumsy gestures gave us laughter and consolation during the gloomy era of military dictatorship. Even as he was in and out of consciousness from pneumonia, he continued to serve the public by delivering messages against smoking.

Twenty years ago, when he started gaining prominence, there were some jokes about Mr. Lee. What were the similarities between Mr. Lee and former president Chun Doo Hwan? They appeared about the same time, are bold, enjoy soccer, often are on television, live in houses with the word "blue" in the name and are both funny. They always said they would "show something great," but seldom did.

Mr. Lee's death recalls a poem by Goethe. "Those who have not eaten bread in tears and spent sleepless nights crying in agony do not know of the power of heaven."

Mr. Lee, who experienced turns and twists in his life, must have known the power of heaven. His jokes always carried pathos that drew tears from people. And when we laughed, before we were even aware of it, we were wiping off tears.

The government awarded Mr. Lee a medal, merely for his contribution to anti-smoking campaigns. It should not have been only for that reason. Why does the government not recognize culture?

The writer is the Berlin correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yoo Jae-sik

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