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[OCTOBER 2016.]

Republic of Korea (4)

On the express train from Incheon airport to Seoul the TV screens, which you expect to be playing bland tourist-board products, loop an English-language propaganda film asserting South Korea’s claim to the Dokdo islands, which in the video’s telling are the first bit of territory that the Japanese empire seized by violence. “The world knows the truth,” “Japan knows the truth,” and so on. Seoul was full of Japanese people (I didn’t know they were Japanese unless I overheard them talking), who presumably had no stake in the islands and seemed to be having a good time. Museum signs were in Korean and English; subway signs were in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese. I had taken a few days to learn hangul, like a stupid man, but reading the katakana was still quicker every time, and I was often reminded that if only I had idiot Korean matching my idiot Japanese, I’d be much farther along.

On the Inwangsan trail you can’t take pictures in the direction of the city, because the presidential palace is too near below. You can take pictures in the other direction, which is all mountain and must get close to the DMZ, though I didn’t know where the markers were. It was a route in this area that the North Korean commandos took when they tried to assassinate Park Chung-hee in 1968; under one of the trailheads there’s a monument to the police chief who first accosted them and died in the firefight. Nearby is a memorial museum to the poet Yun Dong-ju, who died aged 27 in a Japanese prison in 1945.

Before my trip I knew nothing about Korean poetry except for Ko Un, and had the pleasure of discovering a great many figures of the thirties and forties inviting (to me) comparison with Lorca or Celan, blending an older generation’s aestheticism and surrealism with other modes and all marked by history even when they didn’t die young—though so many died young. Yi Sang, whose pen name comes from being wrongly called Lee-San by a Japanese teacher, wrote with Dada inventiveness and compulsion until his arrest and death in Japan; Cheong Chiyong, the more classicist modernist who climbed Paengnokdam, was detained in Pyongyang in 1950 and never heard from again. Yun Dong-ju is everyone’s favorite not because he achieved the most, but because his single posthumous book has enough breath-catching moments to make clear the maturing gift, and because his basic Keatsian innocence tempts martyrology. For me the sentimental sticking point is that he died so far from home; I was really chilled to see the manuscript of his poem about homesickness in Japan actually written on the university’s exercise paper. (Calling Japan a foreign land would get you in trouble; writing in Korean would get you in trouble.) And who hasn’t written such things on school exercise paper? But universities have always been my refuges, and this one, where he had gone to study English literature, ended up complicit with the regime that killed him.

The memorial museum used to be a pumping station built into the hillside, and is ingenious and strange. The outer room has the exhibits; farther in is an “open well” converted from a storage tank with the roof removed and a reed garden planted; farthest in is a “closed well” made from the adjacent tank with the roof intact, which does an uncanny job of evoking the prison environment, at least when they aren’t projecting a documentary on the wall that shares some formal qualities with the Dokdo islands video. Most of my time in the museum I spent threading my way around a tour group whose guide I couldn’t understand, just as I couldn’t read the manuscripts. It was all for the tour group much more than for me. But they made space for me, as much as I required, which was not much at all; I hope it seldom is.

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