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Korea: Shame & Chauvinism

Prison Writings

by Kim Dae Jung, translated by Choi Sung-Il
University of California Press, 333 pp., $22.50


The Government of the Republic of Korea heartily welcomes you to this land and wishes you enjoy every hour of your trip. As you would already perceive, we are under continuous threats from the hostile forces which are deployed along the DMZ line only some 50 kilometers away from our capital city of Seoul. This fact requires us of keeping constant vigilance particularly against possible air-raid.”

(Civil Defense Guide for Foreign Tourists)

On a cold day this last November Colonel Schreuders returned to the spot where Chinese troops wiped out many of his men one early morning in 1951. Schreuders belonged to the Dutch battalion defending a bridge in Hoengsong, a small town about eighty miles from Seoul. The battle, forgotten by almost everybody but the survivors, cost seventeen lives, and the town was destroyed. Hoengsong is now a prosperous-looking place with supermarkets, cinemas, and fashion boutiques. The memorial to the Dutch commander who was killed by a hand grenade minutes after his guard shouted, “The Chinks are coming, look out!” lies in a playground. The colonel tried to find familiar landmarks with his old army map. He found none, apart from the lone steeple of an old church, which had been pulled down only days before he arrived. A South Korean veteran of the Dutch battalion made the motions of firing an imaginary gun. “I shot a lot of enemies here,” he said to the colonel, who did not appear to remember the man. A priest rang the bell in the steeple. A few children played with a plastic machine gun in the playground. A US Army tank battalion rolled through the town for regular maneuvers, and helicopters made dives for the river bank.

The colonel made a short speech, platitudinous but oddly moving, because it obviously meant so much to him. He told the town dignitaries how happy he was to see how well South Koreans had used “the freedom we all fought for.” I wondered what was going through the minds of the Koreans in the room. I thought of some of the statistics I had jotted down in my notebook that week: half a million North Korean soldiers just across the border; nearly 40,000 American troops in South Korea; 6.5 million US dollars worth of tear gas used by South Korean riot police against students during the last nine months.

Some twelve hundred students were arrested that week after a fierce battle with the police at Konkuk University in Seoul. Many of them had shouted North Korean propaganda slogans and claimed that the Korean War had been a national struggle for reunification crushed by Yankee imperialists. They set fire to effigies of Nakasone and Reagan. Many students expressed sympathy for the demonstrators’ feelings if not always for their most extreme aims. Tear gas hung in the air of virtually every campus in Seoul.

I was driven back to Seoul by the Korean veteran who shot many enemies. He was an animated man who spoke fluent Malay—not a good sign for a Korean of his age, for it probably meant he served as a camp guard in Malaya or Indonesia under the Japanese. I did not press the point. He expressed a great disgust for Americans. “They are very stupid people,” he said. “They should have won the Korean War. They had nuclear arms but were too soft to use them.” He clenched his fist and banged the steering wheel as he spoke. He declared that Americans could not fight because they were afraid of dying and because they ate candy. “They are soft, soft, soft!” he said and spat out the window. He then shifted to more familiar ground: how Korea had a superior culture to Japan; how the Japanese had tried to rob Koreans of their unique and superior culture; and how during bad times he had often asked God why he had to be born as a Korean. He expressed an even greater disgust for his ancestors than for Americans. “I hate my ancestors. They did nothing but fight among themselves and let the big powers take over our country.”

It is something one hears a lot in South Korea, this complex and sometimes explosive mixture of shame and chauvinism. The one, of course, stokes the flames of the other. There is a Korean word for pandering to foreign powers: “sadae chuui.” And Koreans are forever accusing one another of it. These accusations are not without reason, for Koreans have a long history of using outside powers to fight opponents at home. In the seventh century the Korean peninsula was unified for the first time, when the kingdom of Silla defeated the kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche with the help of Chinese troops. (According to a history book published in North Korea, this treacherous act “cost the progress of Korean history very dearly”—Silla was in the south, Koguryo in the north.1 ) In the late nineteenth century Chinese and Japanese soldiers helped the Korean government put down a major popular rebellion.

The line between “pandering to” and depending on foreign powers simply to survive is of course a thin one, given Korea’s precarious geographical position between three major powers—China, Russia, and Japan. For much of its history the survival of a unified Korean state depended on the patronage of one power—China. By the same token, shifts in the power balance around the Korean peninsula led to divisions inside the country. In the late nineteenth century there were pro-Russian factions in Korea, pro-Japanese factions, and pro-Chinese factions, all accusing each other of selling out.

Today, North Korea calls the South a toadying puppet of the United States. In the late 1940s leftists accused rightists of having been Japanese collaborators during the colonial period. North Korea claimed to be the legitimate heir of Korean destiny by pointing to the Beloved Leader Kim Il Sung, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter. The South, whose government, army, and police force were indeed full of former Japanese collaborators, said Kim Il Sung owed his exalted position to his mentors in the Soviet Union. Critics of President Park Chung Hee used to delight in using the Japanese name—Matsumoto—which he adopted as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. People who dislike the most prominent opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, were especially appalled when he turned up in Seoul last year shielded by American congressmen and reporters, ostensibly to avoid the same fate as “Ninoy” Aquino.

Kim himself put the sadae chuui syndrome rather well in one of his letters from prison:

How can we avoid the sin of those who led this nation to destruction when the Yi dynasty was losing to the Japanese aggressors or the sin of our ancestors who lent cowardly cooperation by simply looking on? Let us remind ourselves that liberation from Japanese colonialism was not attained by our own strength and that there were many pro-Japanese elements at that time. After liberation, did our national spirit stand on solid ground, cleansing itself of pro-Japanese elements and pushing the patriots to the fore? The sin of this kind of betrayal of the legitimacy of our nation has since become the karma that suppresses all the regions of this country. It has made empty slogans of conscience, justice, and patriotism and has made the country a playground for those who would use any means to attain their ends, those motivated by devilish and selfish intents. How can we escape punishment for these sins? We should gladly accept it.

This is typical of the tone of Kim’s prison letters, which are not very well written, and rather clumsily translated—Chinese and Japanese names, incidentally, are often mispelled: Who is the famous Japanese novelist Majima Yukio? But the Prison Writings are fascinating nonetheless, for the light they throw on Kim’s very Korean mind. Kim is a devout Catholic. Again and again in his prison letters he compares his plight to that of Jesus Christ. He sees himself as much more than just a politician; he is the true patriot bearing the cross put on his shoulders by treacherous toadies; which should make him the only legitimate leader of his country.

Because of the deep division running through the Korean peninsula, legitimacy is a particularly acute problem. Both halves of the divided Korean peninsula wish to be recognized as the true, legitimate Korea. South Korea has the added problem that since 1945 it has been divided internally. Left-wing opposition could only be contained by President Syngman Rhee in the 1950s and, later, by Park Chung Hee, by resorting to the kind of military authoritarianism imposed before by the Japanese. Rhee legitimized his rule by strong anti-Japanese and anti-communist rhetoric. Park, who took power in a military coup in 1961, tried to justify his regime by holding presidential elections in 1971, in which he barely managed to beat Kim Dae Jung. But the main justification was his goal of fast economic modernization. His success gave him a large degree of legitimacy in the eyes of his countrymen, who, by and large, were willing to sacrifice political freedoms for order and prosperity. But the same success made his political style seem outdated. It no longer fitted a more complex and sophisticated society with a rising middle class. Park’s response to the growing opposition, which erupted in sometimes violent street demonstrations, was harsher repression instead of compromise. It is commonly believed that this was one of the reasons that Kim Jae Kyu, then head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), assassinated Park in October 1979. Kim favored a more conciliatory approach to oppositionists. And indeed during the first few months after Park’s death there was sufficient optimism for people to speak of a “Seoul Spring.”

Chun Doo Hwan, who took power in a military coup in 1980, was hardly the kind of man of whom to expect political tolerance or compromise, more in tune with Korea’s increasing complexity. Chun had been a paratrooper and head of the powerful Defense Security Command. In 1980 he was made head of the KCIA, from which he purged his potential and real rivals for alleged corruption. As was the case during an earlier “Seoul Spring,” in 1960, after student demonstrators had toppled Syngman Rhee, more political freedom led to more demonstrations, fighting among opposition leaders, more violence in the streets, in short, just the kind of social disorder military leaders itch to put right. When Kim Young Sam, the leader of the opposition party, opposed Kim Dae Jung’s candidacy for president, their respective followers fought each other like gangsters. Kim Dae Jung finally tried to rally radical students behind his cause. This was the background to the violent uprising of May 1980 in Kwangju, the main city of southern Cholla Province, where Kim had—still has—most of his political support. The revolt was crushed by Chun Doo Hwan’s troops. The government claims that fewer than two hundred people died; Kim’s supporters speak of up to two thousand. Three months later Chun became president, and on September 17 Kim was sentenced to death for sedition and leading an antistate organization. The sentence still stands.

  1. 1

    Quoted by Aidan Foster-Carter in the Far Eastern Economic Review (October 2, 1986).

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