Strokes of ingeniousAfter 50 years, Jeong Un-gyung, 67, has finally called it quits. "Well, I guess it's time to rest," says the cartoonist who had been an essential part of the JoongAng Ilbo. Millions of readers have enjoyed his witty, four- panel cartoons in the national section of the Korean daily newspaper since January 1975. He drew his last pen stroke Sunday.
For 28 years, his main character, Walsun Ajime, had come to life 8,829 times, bringing most readers a good laugh each day.
"I guess there is a good side and bad side to all this," he says. After a short pause he adds, "It's like ending a long journey going home, you know?"
Before Mr. Jeong started to draw for the JoongAng Ilbo, his work had been published more than 15,000 times in other publications. His central character Walsun was born in 1955 when Mr. Jeong was asked by Choi Il-won, chief editor of the magazine Yeo Won, to create an everyday family character with whom readers could identify.
Mr. Jeong's work was driven by a philosophy that he says served him during the many years when freedom of expression was not a familiar term in the peninsula.
"Once I heard a poet saying that a cartoon is the barometer of a period," Mr. Jeong says. "A cartoon is a satire on the society. Still, you just can't draw a cartoon that is like a Roentgen picture that only shows bones. What you really want to say has to be concealed softly. The fun factor has to be there as well."
It took him two months to find the name for his main character. He had been wandering around in the back alleys of Seoul looking at the name plates attached to houses when one day he saw a woman talking to his cousin's wife. The woman's name was Lee Wol-sun. She was a typical ajumma, or married Korean woman. She was in her 40s and had great composure and a thundering voice. The moment he saw her he created Walsun Ajime. Mr. Jeong says that he never saw the character's namesake again, but he heard recently from someone that she had died. His first plan as a retiree is to visit the grave of the person who catapulted the birth of a character that has outlived many people.
Using Walsun, her husband Kim So-dal, an average salary man, and the couple's' son, Ppeanpalee, Mr. Jeong represented the common people and provided amusement found few other places. His panels may have occupied only a small corner of a page, but the average person found entertainment in those corners while going through the struggles of everyday life.
Drawing cartoons based on current events is not as easy as someone might think. Mr. Jeong says that reading newspapers, magazines and meeting people are basic ways to get ideas. His favorite way of coming up with ideas was to walk from his home in Yeouido to his workplace in Seosomun, downtown Seoul, three to four times a week. Thanks to his walking habit, twice a year he had to have his shoes repaired. Besides the stress of creating something new each day, there were other things that kept his stress level up. Sometimes people would call him up early in the morning and threaten his family. On a few occasions he was offered a lawmaker seat from the powerful elite who wanted to cash in on his popularity, but those offers fell on deaf ears. "I told them straight that I was a man of the pen and that I planned to be that way for the rest of my life," says Mr. Jeong.
Back in the 1970s, criticizing the government could mean a one-way trip to Namsan, home of Korea's Central Intelligence Agency. "Yeah, I ate ramen there a couple of times," remembers Mr. Jeong. Ramen, or instant noodles, was served at most meals at the intelligence unit that was used by the government to suppress anti-government voices. In the 1980s and then through the early '90s, things got better. "Under Kim Young-sam's government, I thought I should not talk about serious issues, such as the democratic movement. But readers' interests demanded those issues and other social matters," remembers Mr. Jeong.
"Under Kim Dae-jung's government, the control of the press became much more sophisticated. You would not feel it in an obvious way like the old days. Nevertheless, it was there and the readers knew about it and they let me know."
The only thing he regrets is that there is no one to continue his work. A couple of times he had brought in people who had some talent but they all quit after a short time, unable to handle the pressure of creating a current affairs cartoon on a daily basis.
His future plans include some teaching at the college level. When a reporter asks him to give his final thoughts that cannot be expressed in a cartoon, he says, in a sincere voice, "I know that I may have hurt some people who have become the object of my cartoons. As a human being I am sorry for that."
With freedom came the joy of expression
"Early in the 1980s mentioning the word 'Gwangju' was still a taboo. But somehow, I wanted to talk about it," says Mr. Jeong.
In the cartoon above, he talks about the Gwangju uprising in May 1980. In his own way, then, he took a significant part in the democratic movement of Korea.
At the time of the Gwangju incident, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo held high posts in the Korean Army that crushed the uprising. Talking about it during Chun Doo-hwan's reign was certainly not recommended. After Chun Doo-hwan's presidency, Roh Tae-woo became president in 1988 and it was only then that Mr. Jeong felt true changes occurred in Korean society.
"I could feel the force of the people coming into the open more often," says Mr. Jeong of the growing new spirit in the country. There was much more freedom to express things and it was a time when I felt the most joy in expressing myself."
1935: Born in North Gyeongsang province
1955: Creates Walsun Ajime, his chief character. Becomes exclusive cartoonist for the magazine Yeo Won
1963-1966: Works as cartoonist for the Daehan Ilbo
1967-1974: Works as cartoonist for the Kyunghyang Sinmun
1975-2002: Works as cartoonist for the JoongAng Ilbo
by Jung Hyung-mo