From his prison cell he heard the voice of life

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From his prison cell he heard the voice of life

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Kim Chi-ha. By Jeong Chi-ho

Kim Chi-ha had a splitting headache when he flew to the United States last year. For the 66-year-old poet, a leading figure in the struggle against the military regimes of the ’60s and ’70s, a trip to the United States was no picnic. Fear and loathing dominated Kim’s feelings about his destination.
The poet has a vivid memory of the “deep red rage” he felt when a riot policeman pressed a bayonet against his chest in 1963. Kim has been participating in a demonstration to protest against a U.S. soldier who had reprimanded a Korean errand boy for being disobedient. He also remembers a friend of his, a prominent activist, who chose to go to the United States and came back as a nobody. “The United States seemed like a monstrous black hole that would transmute and terminate me,” he said.
For decades, Kim had chosen to remain in Korea and turned down offers to visit the United States for honorary degrees from several reputed schools such as the New School for Social Research in New York.
However, last year he changed his mind and decided to accept invitations to lecture at several universities including Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles. The headache followed him on his lecture tour, but one day, in the middle of the Arizona desert, he burst out laughing. “I realized that the United States could not enslave me with fear,” Kim said. “I was living with a shadow built by what I had heard, not by what I had seen for myself.”
The trip taught him some new questions about what the United States means to Korea, which is “torn in half and surrounded by the world powers.”
“There is no question about the importance of the United States,” he said. “It has become like a Rome that is greater than Rome.”
This awareness led him to publish a book of essays about his travels around the United States, Europe and Central Asia. In the book, called “Yegam (Premonition),” Kim organized his thoughts on the basis of his studies of life and ecology and some Korean ideologies of the past such as Donghak or Cheondogyo ― Cheondogyo means “Religion of the Heavenly Way” and has its roots in Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. It was based on the Donghak, which was formulated by Choi Je-u in the 1860s to provide spiritual solace to peasant farmers.
Cheondogyo teaches that God resides in all of us, not in heaven, and it seeks to convert earthly society into a paradise. It is often seen as a from of humanism.
Yegam led to a strong public reaction, with some of Kim’s fans saying that the poet had become “pro-American,” a claim he flatly rejects. “I am not glorifying the United States,” he said. “I witnessed its good and bad aspects and I want to find ways to use the power of the United States to spread Korean philosophy.”
Kim’s passion for life studies burgeoned during the years he spent in prison because of his resistance to the Park Chung Hee regime from 1961 to 1979.
“Almost seven years in an isolation cell almost drove me insane,” Kim said. “The ceiling was coming down, the floor was coming up and the walls were coming at me.”
One day, Kim saw dandelion seeds in the air and the budding leaves of an ailanthus, commonly known as “the tree of heaven,” through the bars of his tiny cell window. “Watching the living plants, I found myself shedding a shower of tears and I heard the word ‘life’ repeated by different voices,” Kim recalled. “Then I realized that the pursuit of life could save me from the pain of prison.”
Kim voraciously pursued a program of study. In particular, he found himself drawn to Korean religious philosophy and other Eastern ideas.
“I had studied European and Christian ideologies, and I thought that they provided little vision for what comes after the last trump,” Kim explained. “Then I found answers from the Cheondogyo and other Asian ideas.”
The pursuit of life brought a change in his poetry as well. After he was released from jail in 1980, following the end of the Park regime, Kim started to concentrate on lyric poetry.
“Some people denounced me for being a traitor and writing petty poems about love,” Kim recalled. Describing the criticism as “lacking common sense,” Kim said, “There is power in words. I learned the way to use soft energy in my poems, instead of demanding that they be like bullets. From my years in prison, I learned that the soft and the delicate can besiege and conquer the stiff world of fascist ideas.”
In the 1970s, under the rule of the military regime, it was a different story. Kim wrote robust poems which he used as weapons against the strongman president.
One example is his 1970 poem, “Ojeok (Five Thieves),” which was a vitriolic attack on politicians written in the cadence of pansori, traditional Korean opera. Kim was arrested on charges of “benefiting North Korea” for publishing the poem.
Other poems such as “Taneun Mokmareumeuro (With a Burning Thirst),” are also remembered for their powerful lines and resistance to the dictatorship. Kim’s poems cemented his status as a leading dissident against the Park regime. He had supporters at home and abroad, many of whom demanded clemency for Kim when he was sentenced to death in 1974 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government in alliance with North Korean communists.
Literary critic and poet Kim Hyeong-soo described Kim’s work from this era as “the most monumental in the history of Korean poetry.”
“Kim created a new genre from traditional Korean culture and used it to reflect reality,” the critic said. “Kim influenced not only literature but the entire cultural scene of Korea.”
Kim said his resistance to the Park regime was a “question of the human pride.” As a Seoul National University student in the 1960s he started to participate in and lead rallies. He was especially opposed to the Park regime’s stance on Japan which he described as “eating-crow.” He served several jail sentences, which only increased his will to fight the regime.
“I saw a man arrested for saying ‘What a horrible world it is’ on his way back home after a drink,” Kim recalled. “The regime was trampling on basic self-esteem and freedom, which are the basis of democracy. For me, resistance had a connection to the meaning of life.”
Getting arrested, running away and being caught so many times was hard, but he said he could not stand by and “do nothing about a government that was violating the basic principles of democracy.”
Such devotion to the democracy movement was one reason why a famous newspaper column he wrote in 1991 was so shocking for progressives. It was called “Cut out the exorcist ritual of death,” and Kim used the piece to condemn a series of suicides by students protesting against a government crackdown that had resulted in the death of an activist. Kim was pursuing his life studies at the time and he felt he could not stand idle as young people took their own lives. “Nothing is more precious than life,” he said. “No political power deserves the sacrifice of a life.”
Kim said that he wrote the column in a merciless fashion, after consulting with psychologists. “In order to stop someone from taking their life, you must eliminate any reason to justify their deeds,” he said. The column, however, caused some liberals to call him a traitor.
Kim Hyeong-soo, the critic, called Kim a turncoat back then. “Kim Chi-ha was a symbol of the democracy movement, and it was a shock that such as person could write a column like that,” he said.
“I simply did not care about these criticisms,” Kim recalled. “All that mattered then was that the series of suicides should end. I did not want to pursue a political career, so there was no reason for me care about the criticism.”
The progressives took issue with the fact that he contributed the column to the Chosun Ilbo, which is known as a conservative newspaper. Kim frowned and said, “There’s no particular reason. I was writing a serial for the Dong-A Ilbo, so I turned to another newspaper, which happened to be the Chosun.”
Kim is determined to devote what remains of his energy to “life studies,” which he calls “sallim” in Korean, meaning “giving life” in English.
He is currently the chief of the Life and Peace Foundation, which is planning to hold a forum in Washington D.C. in early November. It will focus on the environment and human rights and Kim plans to use it as an opportunity to popularize his ideas. “I hope American intellectuals will read this article and begin a discourse with me about life and peace,” he said. “After all, the best type of peace comes from respect for life.”
The American translator of Kim’s poems, David Schloss, a professor of literature at Miami University thinks Kim’s work deserves a wider audience. “The charm of Kim’s poems lie in his lyrical and celebratory view of the world,” Schloss said. “The individual resistance to tyranny to be found in Kim’s works is an important theme for people everywhere.”


By Chun Su jin [sujiney@joongang.co.kr]
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