Choi Young-mi (left) and Ko Un (right).
The accusation came in the form of a poem. Six stanzas. Twenty-seven lines.
Don’t sit next to En
The poet ‘K’ advised me, a literary novice
He touches young women whenever he sees one
Choi Young-mi wrote the poem in Korean, her native tongue. It is a language that tends first to cool its emotions, then to assimilate them; unruly drama and dialogue, in their retelling, take on the muted affect of melancholy. This poem, largely unbroken by punctuation and carried by winding lines, swirls like a river.
A handful of English characters litter the poem and stand out like islands, insistent and unyielding. They are mostly names: ‘K,’ who warns the young poet about En, an older poet some thirty years her senior, who gropes the young poet and women like her. There is one English phrase, too, isolated on its own line in the poem’s second stanza: “Me too.”
Forgot K’s advice and sat next to En
The silk blouse borrowed from my sister got rumpled
When Choi Young-mi published these lines under the title “Monster” in December 2017, the #MeToo movement had already toppled Harvey Weinstein and rippled through the centers of American power. In Korea, it had barely registered a presence. For a couple of months after its publication, Choi’s poem seemed fated to inconsequence. The newspapers carried an anonymized and qualified apology from “the elder poet identified as En” and moved on.
But by February, something had turned. A public prosecutor, Ahn Tae-geun, and a stage director, Lee Youn-taek, were brought down under the aegis of an emerging Korean #MeToo movement. Activists, spurred on by these early victories and by the testimony of high-profile women like Seo Ji-hyun, took to social media and began to organize. They echoed the global catchcry and added one of their own: 나도당했다. The Korean phrase is difficult to translate into English. “I was also aggrieved” comes close, but that fails to capture the sense of deep sorrow and outrage in the face of an unresolved, and possibly unresolvable, injustice. Koreans call this emotion han, the feeling with which they now say, “Me too.”
Protestors in South Korea.
In this escalating climate, Choi Young-mi gave a television interview in which she spoke about “Monster” and the prevalence of sexual harassment in Korea’s literary world. She declined to reveal the identity of En, adding only that he was “a repeat offender.” She would not need to. The press and the public were willing to converge on a conclusion that they had only months before sought to evade: Ko Un, the national poet of Korea, had been accused of sexual abuse.
To understand Ko Un’s towering stature in Korean literary life, one must know the extent to which his personal history is entangled with that of the country. Ko Un was born in 1933 to a peasant family in Gunsan, North Joella, during the period of Japanese occupation. He was a teenager when the Korean War broke out and left him as one of its few survivors. Ko, who worked as a gravedigger during the war, carries the sorrow of the period on his person. As he once told the Guardian, “Half of my generation died. So there was a sense of guilt, of culpability, at being a survivor. So from that time on I’m inhabited by a lament for the dead.” It was a trauma that, for some ten years after the war, Ko evinced in a reclusive life as a Buddhist monk.
The narrative biography of Ko Un was always one that bent towards redemption. Ko, recovering from the alcoholism and depression that plagued his postmonastic life, threw himself into the prodemocracy movements of the seventies and eighties. He led activist organizations against the autocratic regimes, first of Park Chung-hee and then of Chun Doo-hwan. He was imprisoned as a political dissident on four separate occasions. More recently, Ko has been a key figure in cultural diplomacy efforts with North Korea, including one project aimed at composing a Pan-Korean dictionary.
For this life, and for the rugged passion and beauty of his work, Ko became Korea’s best-known poet. His works have been translated into approximately thirty languages, and Ko frequently has been named a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Allen Ginsberg pronounced him “a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscenti, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian.” His glorification was buoyed by the coincidence of his name: Ko Un is a homonym for the Korean word for gorgeous.
This March, as more people came forward to corroborate Choi’s account that Ko Un had groped and exposed himself to younger women, Ko issued a denial of the allegations. Through his publishers in the UK, he told the Guardian, “I regret that my name has been brought up in the recent allegations. I have already expressed regret for any unintended pain that my behavior may have caused. However, I flatly deny charges of habitual misconduct that some individuals have brought against me.”
The denial did not halt the punitive reactions, which spread like wildfire. The Seoul Municipal Library dismantled a three-hundred-million-won (about two hundred eighty thousand U.S. dollars) exhibition dedicated to his magnum opus, Maninbo. The artifacts that Ko had donated for the exhibit—clothes, glasses, and some three thousand books—would all be returned to him. The city government of Suwon, his most recent home, scrapped plans to build a commemorative Ko Un literary house. Ko announced his plans to move out of his home by the end of the year. Of all these acts, one stands out in its focus on Ko’s future legacy: publishers removed the poetry of Ko Un from middle school and high school textbooks.
The exhibits on the third floor of the Seoul Municipal Library are all concerned with memorialization. The entrance to a display on the old city hall and the mayor’s office reads, THE PLACE WHERE SEOUL’S MEMORIES RESIDE. To its left is a shrine to a nineteen-year-old maintenance worker who died in an accident on the Seoul metro. A small black-and-white sign reads, SO THAT WE MAY NOT FORGET THE GUUI STATION ACCIDENT, THIS IS A SPACE FOR US ALL TO REMEMBER. These are monuments not only to remembered objects but also to the act of remembering. In one corner of the floor, there is a room covered in white screens and messy plastic: the former Ko Un exhibit, now a site of unremembering.
The library plans to use the space for an exhibit on Gwanghwamun Square, which has long been a place for civic action and gathering. Some may perceive in the decision a quiet salute to the #MeToo movement and to the Korean Women’s Conference that gathered in Gwanghwamun to invoke its twin rallying cries, #MeToo and #WithYou. Others may see in it parallels between #MeToo and the other recent icon of citizen-led activism, the Candlelight Struggles that led to the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye. Both movements demonstrated the power of protest to depose powerful individuals. But as Koreans imprison yet another former president, Lee Myung-bak, on charges of corruption, they confront the reality that deposing the head is no panacea for the structural problems that lie beneath.
This is a point that Choi Young-mi seems instinctively to understand. In her interviews, she situates the accusation against the individual within an indictment of the institution: “People like him were members of major literary quarterlies, through which aspiring writers and poets make their literary debut or publish their works.” In “Monster,” Choi writes, “En is a tap. It flows if you open it / but the water is shit water.” The object of her lament is ultimately not herself but the “poor public” further down stream, who “do not know that the water they drink is shit water.” Sexual abuse leaches toxicity into the world.
Choi’s poem shares a name with another work by a Korean artist: The Host, a 2006 film by the director Bong Joon-ho. Although the titles have been translated differently in English, the underlying Korean word, 괴물, is the same. In the movie, chemical pollution in the Han River births an amphibious monster that unleashes chaos on Seoul. Against the protests of locals, an inept Korean government and a bullying American military release into the air and the water a chemical, Agent Yellow, aimed at killing the monster. The film throws into question the identity of the “monster” and unveils the power behind such a designation. To look at Korea today is to wonder how large, how prevalent, and how deeply entrenched is the monster to which Choi Young-mi refers. Her poem asks us to see to the slight eighty-four-year-old poet and also to see beyond him.
On a recent trip to Seoul, a friend took me to a speakeasy in the basement of a hotel, where we ordered well-made Manhattans that we could not afford. From the bar, we saw a young woman passed out on a man’s lap. I gestured to the bartender and brought his attention to the couple. He, a foreigner, told me in a matter-of-fact way, “We are aware of the situation, and we are taking care of it, but you know this is Korea, and things are different here.” As I started to say, “I am Korean,” he interrupted, “so you should know better.” When we left the bar, the night air was cold. The question Choi Young-mi poses at the end of her poem hung heavy in the air: “After growing a monster / how can we catch a monster?”
Bo Seo is a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University. He is Korean and Australian.
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