[Viewpoint] Respecting all our past greats

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[Viewpoint] Respecting all our past greats

Korean society said farewell to two great men in the last week. If Venerable Beopjeong was a guide to life to Koreans, composer Park Chun-seok was a companion for life.

Music has long been vital to Koreans. As the country went through development and industrialization from the 1960s to the 1980s, many of its people found comfort in the radio and LPs as they struggled to make ends meet. Koreans might not have been able to overcome the hard times had it not been for the country’s singers and composers.

Working on sewing machines till daybreak, young factory girls listened to Korean pop star Nam Jin’s croons of “If there had not been an ocean between you and me,” and dreamt of dating college students who looked like the singer.

Girls who lived in the countryside listened to the songs of Na Hoon-a as they pined for their boyfriends who had gone to Seoul. With lyrics like, “Looking back once as I turned the corner of the stone wall, looking back again as I crossed the stepping-stones,” Na’s “Where the Waterwheel Turns” was a love letter for young women waiting for their sweethearts.

For the boys, there were Patti Kim, Jeong Hun-hee and Ha Chun-hwa. Hearing Kim sing, “When solitude soaks into the heart and writhes” in the song “First Rain,” boys would long to hit the bottle to forget their pain.

The nation was focused on economic development and exports, but boys were still busy searching for the loves they hadn’t met yet. Jeong Hun-hee sang, “Far away in the endless sky, stars are shining in distance.” Ha Chun-hwa serenaded, “One day, love blossomed and a dream began by the calm, blue waters of the lake.” In the factory dorms and military barracks, the boys of the 1970s dreamt of the 1980s.

Men and women alike loved popular music. “Azaleas in the mountain, forsythias in the fields. Where is the father? Where does he live?” Lee Mi-ja’s “Goose Father” made everyone living far from their loved ones cry. Fathers working in the deserts in the Middle East were in tears, and their families in Seoul wept, too. After four decades, the song still makes today’s “goose fathers” cry. Kim Ran-young sang, “Does anyone know this person? She has a slender figure and bright eyes,” and separated families wept and missed their lost members. When television broadcasters played this song during the reunion campaign for the separated South-North families, viewers were in tears as well.

The composer who provided this sound track of masterpieces is Park Chun-seok. He is credited with some 2,700 songs, and fellow composer Gil Ok-yun, who passed away 15 years ago, composed over 3,500 songs. Together, the two greats produced 6,200 songs that have served as the stepping-stones for Koreans crossing the river of development and suffering.

While Venerable Beopjeong refreshed souls with his essays and Buddhist writings, Gil and Park soothed minds with their sorrowful, beautiful melodies. Who can say their contribution to the world was less than what Beopjeong did for the people? Maybe Gil and Park were more approachable to ordinary people with their popular songs.

However, political leaders reacted quite differently to the deaths of the two great men. The president, prime minister and many other prominent figures traveled to Gilsang Temple to offer their condolences. In contrast, far less notable guests attended Park’s funeral. Visitors included Labor Minister Lim Tae-hee and Culture Minister Yoo In-chon, lawmakers Kim Bu-gyeom and Won Hee-ryong, and the Blue House Secretary for Culture and Sports Ham Young-jun. When political leaders visit the funeral of a certain individual, the decisions exert tremendous impact on the public. What is their standard when they bow in front of a portrait of the deceased? Why do they pay respects to a late religious leader but not to a great popular composer who was equally loved by the citizens?

Moreover, Park passed away after struggling against his illness for 15 years. If the president or another respected political leader had embraced Patti Kim and Lee Mi-ja in tears at the funeral, many Koreans and pop musicians would have felt comforted. Political leaders need to get closer to the popular musicians and actors who have seen the Korean people through difficult times. These entertainers wiped the tears that politicians themselves could not. Choi Jin-sil, Gil Ok-yun and Park Chun-seok stood steadfast by the Korean people.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Jin
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