- Editor’s Note
Azalea 6 gathers once again a remarkable range of poetry, fiction, memoir, and other materials. Heo Gyun was widely credited as the author of the well-known Robin Hood-like story, the “Tale of Hong Gildong.” Translator and copious annotator Minsoo Kang succinctly indicates the unlikelihood of that attribution, while also asserting another claim, the right to use the official “Korean” romanization system for the Korean language rather than the McCune-Reischauer system preferred by this journal and many Western scholarly publications. An entirely fitting and apt move, Professor Kang’s hope to allow future generations of readers the right to choose is one that, for all the tension it may produce as readers make their way from one system to the other in our pages, Azalea is glad to endorse.
From the seventeenth- or as Minsoo Kang argues, more likely the nineteenth-century story of Hong the bandit, readers can turn their attention to poetry, recollections, illustrations by Kim Young Jin, and a comics version of the story by Shun Dong Wu. Across a wide range of contemporary literature and other arts, a compelling array of works will make their own claims upon the reader’s attention.
I’d like to point to one small echo-point that I found particularly intriguing. In Han Yujoo’s sci-fi story “Is It Gravitation? Is It Repulsion?” set in the aftermath of a civilization-breaking global flood, the narrator makes jokes, one and then another and [End Page 7] another. One is about nuclear disaster. “I told him a joke, ‘Yaksan in Yŏngbyŏn, nuclear Azaleas.’”
The initial point of the joke, its pivot, would be clear enough to someone who had followed the news about North Korea’s nuclear engineering. In 1980, construction was started on a nuclear generator in Yŏngbyŏn, about 90 kilometers from Pyongyang. The facility “went critical” in 1985. Use of it was halted in 1994 in accord with the Agreed Framework, but then resumed for processing in 2007, with problems occurring in 2008 and 2009.
That nuclear plant is well known, and the joke in the story suggests that other sorts of plants, of the botanical variety, growing in or near Yŏngbyŏn might be radioactive. That much is clear, and part of the tapestry of strange jokes that occur throughout the story.
What I wonder about, as a reader familiar with twentieth-century Korean literature, is the possible reference to a poem by Kim Sowŏl, 1902–1934. Sowŏl was born near Yŏngbyŏn, and in his most well-known poem “Azaleas” referred to the azaleas of Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn.
When you go away Sick of seeing me, I shall let you go gently, no words.
From Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn, An armful of azaleas I shall gather and scatter on your path.
Step by step away On the flowers lying before you, Tread softly, deeply, and go. [End Page 8]
When you go away, Sick of seeing me, though I die; No, I shall not shed a tear.
Does the passing reference to the radioactive azaleas connect to this poem? Does it connect to the poem directly, or via the joke about those azaleas made so famous by the poem? Would contemporary Korean readers “get” the joke from news and commentary about the North and its nuclear programs, or from the poem by Kim Sowŏl, for decades the most widely known of any twentieth-century poetic work?
I bring myself back, though, to this page, and a prediction: that readers of Azalea 6 will find in its pages a host of intriguing intersections with their own interests in literature, Korea, and the arts. May you enjoy your pursuit of them, as I have mine. [End Page 9]
David R. McCann is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature at Harvard University. He is the recipient of numerous prizes, grants, and fellowships, including the Order of Cultural Merit award (2006), one of the highest decorations by the Korean government, and the Manhae Prize in Arts and Sciences...