[Viewpoint] Egalitarian struggles remembered
Recently, I visited the top floor of the Samil Building in downtown Seoul for the first time in 20 years. After a meeting nearby, tea somewhere with a view was suggested. The lounge was dated, but it was full of old memories. When this dinosaur of a building was constructed in 1969, the streets of Jongno were crowded with people trying to count the floors of Korea’s first high-rise.
Along with the Samil overpass, the building that had long served as the landmark of Seoul assuaged our developing country’s sense of inferiority. The 31-story building that opened the era of skyscrapers in Korea was featured on textbooks, captivating the eyes of young Koreans. The Samil Building left an impression far stronger than the 63 Building built in Yeouido, Seoul, in 1985. It was the symbol of the country’s systematic modernization and a celebration of the policy success of the Third Republic, and was the pride of Koreans for some time.
Kim Jung-eob was the architect responsible for its design. It is ironic that the man who helped the Park Chung Hee Administration with the aesthetics of the Western skyscraper ended up being forced to leave the country by the same regime. The architect was outspoken about the rough-and-ready policy and immorality of the government over luxury housing in Dongbinggo-dong, the collapse of the hastily built showcase Wau Apartment, and the controversial relocation of the Cheonggye Stream residents to Seongnam. As a result, he spent eight years abroad and returned only after President Park was assassinated on Oct. 26, 1979.
My thoughts on Kim Jung-oeb came from an image from “Filmmaker Shin Sang-ok: Photographs, Scenes and Comments 1926-2006.” The book was published to mark the third anniversary of the passing of the film director who lived a life even more dramatic than his movies in South and North Korea. The photographs illustrate the vicissitudes the director experienced under the two turbulent systems.
One of the photographs was taken at the closing ceremony of the 9th Asian Film Festival held at Seoul Civic Hall on May 16, 1962. It captures the moment Park Chung Hee, then chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, awarded a trophy to Shin and his wife and leading actress Choi Eun-hee as “The Houseguest and the Mother” won the festival’s prize for best feature film.
Humorous, yet disturbing at the same time, Choi was making a deep bow courteously to the future president on the stage. Coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of the May 6 coup. Excessive courtesy is incivility. She seems like a maid trembling in front of the master of the country. Even in the late 20th century, civic consciousness for constructive development was still in infancy. Shin made efforts to make President Park his political backer, but when the relationship deteriorated over an issue of censorship, the registration of his film studio was canceled.
Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong and was brought to Pyongyang in January 1978, and Shin was also abducted in July of the same year.
Kim Jung-eob and Shin Sang-ok are just two of the countless citizens who were persecuted by the ruler in Korea’s modern history. That’s why we painfully look back on the April Revolution when spring comes every year. The cries for democracy in the April 19 Revolution exactly 50 years ago had been overwhelmed by the tunes of prosperity.
At a seminar marking the 49th anniversary of the Democratic Revolution held at Korea University, Park Chan-se said the ideology of the April Revolution, democracy, nationhood and unification, harbors another grand dream of realizing equality. Equality is made possible on a foundation of human dignity, social alliance and equal participation. It is unthinkable in a class-based society where a master makes a servant kneel.
The young leaders of the April Revolution are now septuagenarians today. The angry faces from half a century ago can be found in old photographs. I wonder if the passion for an egalitarian society is still alive.
The writer is the cultural news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jae-suk