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  • Human Nature Itself Is Poetic:An Interview
  • Ŭn Ko (bio) and Patricia Donegan (bio)

Ko Ŭn is widely acknowledged as Korea's foremost and most prolific contemporary writer and journalist. Born in 1933 in Kunsan, North Choŭlla Province, he mastered the Chinese classics as a child and began writing poetry at age twelve. With the advent of the Korean War in 1950, he witnessed the atrocities of the conflict at first hand. In 1952 he became a Buddhist monk of the Son (Zen) sect, and he later rose to the position of abbot. Returning to secular life, he worked as a human-rights activist in Korea's democratization movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Though jailed and tortured by the government, he continued to speak out against it.

After the fall of the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee and the adoption of a new democratic constitution in 1987, Ko Ŭn was at last allowed to travel abroad. His work began to appear in translation, and he now has an international literary reputation.

He was awarded the Korean Literature Prize in 1974 and 1987, the Manhae Literary Prize in 1989, the Chuang Cultural Prize in 1991, and the Daesan Literary Prize in 1994; in 1998, he received the Manhae Grand Prize, and in 1999 the Manhae Buddhist Literature Prize. Brother Anthony of Taizé interpreted for this interview.

PD When I was in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, the country was just coming out of adversity. When I returned twenty years later, I was amazed, and it made me cry, to see how Korea was blooming, the whole culture…It seems that you've been a great part of Korea's emergence; you've been a poetic voice for Korean history. Since your own history and Korea's are so intertwined, how have you been able to make adversity a strength? How have you kept hope amidst adversity?

First of all, I do not want to rationalize the happiness of being together…whenever people meet there is a tendency to judge, to have [End Page 1] political judgment, so we need to drink a little and feel the effects of the wine first…There was a famous calligrapher of the nineteenth century called Ch'u-sa, who said that "you have to be half drunk to listen to the komun'go"[traditional Korean zither]; the kayagum islighter and merrier, whereas the komun'go is a deeper sound. You have to be drunk to appreciate it. The 1970s was a time when I began to change dramatically myself. Before that I was into "art for art's sake"…Early in the 1970s, there was a young worker who poured gasoline on himself and set himself on fire, demanding justice for workers—this was a big event. Until then I had lived obsessed with the idea of my own death. And then, when confronting my own anticipation of death with the reality of that young worker's heroic sacrifice, I began to compare my notions of dying with what his death represented…and I found myself setting out in the direction of his committed death. That was just the moment that Park Chung-hee had launched the Yusin Reforms [amendments to the constitution that allowed President Park Chung-hee to stay in office indefinitely]. So we began to meet—a group of friends drinking—then took to the streets in protest. Nowadays people think of drink as alcoholism and bad for health, but in Asia, alcohol and poetry have gone hand in hand. In China, Korea, and Japan, poets always began with drinking, and at the end comes the poetry…

PD I've tried it myself sometimes [laughter].

Rather than enlightenment, drunkenness is a more familiar or perhaps an even higher experience [laughter]. In the 1970s, perhaps the courage to protest started with drinking…This is the first time I have ever talked about drinking in an interview…From that time when I was doing poetry readings, they'd give me water, but I would exchange it for something stronger…

PD Is this drinking part of keeping hope and optimism…is drinking...