[FOUNTAIN]A block of steel that may yet melt

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[FOUNTAIN]A block of steel that may yet melt

Some writers are long remembered for their strange behavior. The poet Kim Jong-sam was one. He used to climb a mountain with a bottle of soju, take a drink, lie flat on his back and place a large rock on his chest. When asked about the rock, he said he felt he would fly off into the sky without it. A survivor of Japanese rule and the Korean War, Mr. Kim was preoccupied by death and by the tragedies his people suffered.
In those times, most writers agonized at the crossroads between life, death and their own confusion. Their eccentricities were breaths of freedom, liberations from reality. In his poem “Unwell Seoul,” Oh Jang-hwan cried, “Even broadcasts from the Japanese Emperor and delightful rumors were not convincing to my ears.” His fellow poet Lee Yong-ak wrote in “Barbarian Flower (Violet),” “Our distant ancestors, who survived long periods of battle with the Manchurian barbarians, have given you your name.”
Many writers of the time, including Mr. Oh and Mr. Lee, made the decision to go to North Korea. It was a time of confusion, when men who had tortured dissidents under colonial rule assumed high ranks in the police force, and former independence activists were labeled communists. Writers were told to produce works that contradicted their consciences. Both those who stayed in the South and those who left had much to say about the situation.
“In my view, Korea’s literary world today is full of laziness, vulgarity and the evasion of reality,” said Han Seol-ya, another writer who went North. With fellow novelist Lee Ki-young, he dreamed of visiting Seoul for a national literary conference on Dec. 12, 1945, but couldn’t make it happen. That was the end of inter-Korean literary exchange. Except for some individual visits, the writers have been apart for 60 years.
But perhaps the connection still exists. South Korea’s Association of Writers for National Literature and North Korea’s Korean Authors Union have agreed to hold a meeting at Mount Paektu next month. Poet Kim Soo-young wrote, “The 38th parallel is the highest iceberg in the world. How much deep, quiet love do we need to melt that steep block of steel?” He must be smiling at the news.


by Chung Jae-suk

The writer is a deputy culture news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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