[FOUNTAIN]Of poets and presidentsIn Munui village’s winter I saw
Many a path leading that way,
Narrowly meeting with several other paths.
I wish death would be as desolate as the road to death.
Life is turning back onto that path,
Throwing ashes over the village asleep,
Watching with arms folded
The faraway mountain that seems so near.
Snow has covered death; I wonder what else it can cover.
(At Munui Village, 1974)
In the early 1970s, the poet Ko Eun visited the village of Munui in South Chungcheong province to visit a fellow poet, Shin Dong-mun (1927-1993), whose mother had passed away. Mr. Shin, a once-ardent proponent of resistance to oppression, renounced writing in the 1960s and returned to his hometown to become an acupuncturist for the poor. Mr. Ko, following the funeral procession, writes of the last travel of a person’s life and the snow that descends on everyone.
Mr. Ko became an activist after seeing Jeon Tae-il, a laborer in Seoul, immolate himself to protest the horrific treatment of workers. He had become a Buddhist monk during the Korean War, but returned to secular life after 10 years. Although an eccentric, his poetry often ponders the meaning of life and death. The village of Munui showed him that life and death are not very different, and after the poem’s publication, the North Chungcheong provincial village became a symbol of that belief.
Construction of Daecheong Dam began the next year, part of a plan to tap the economic potential of the Geum River. The dam submerged the entire village. Former President Chun Doo Hwan chose a spot near the submerged village to build a presidential retreat which he named Yeongchunjae, meaning “a picturesque landscape of trees and lakes welcomes spring.” The name was changed to Cheongnamdae, meaning “the southern Blue House,” in 1986.
Buffeted by water and then by power for 20 years, Cheongnam-dae is back in the hands of the public. During his last night there on April 18, President Roh Moo-hyun wrote a letter in which he said he would see with the eyes of a tiger but walk the tenacious walk of an ox. On Monday, the ordinary Kims, Lees and Parks who were able to get tickets for the opening of the former retreat, saw how past presidents relaxed. Times have changed. The poet’s song will live on.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is the London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo