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  • Kim Chi Ha’s Messed-Up Poems
  • David R. McCann (bio)

Kim Chi Ha was a hugely messed-up poet in the 1970’s. Before and after too, if by that one meant that he participated in demonstrations, or that he wrote and published work critical of the oppressionist regime of Park Chung Hee, or that he has lived and worked through a full and deep engagement with life. His long poems of the 1970’s such as “Story of a Sound,” “Five Bandits,” and “Cry of the People” made it pellucidly clear that he was someone the government of the Republic of Korea would view as a threat, someone who might mess them up, for in those days it was a crime in the ROK, South Korea, to spread groundless rumors. It was also a criminal act to read a poem having that title, as if reading a poem titled “Groundless Rumors” could be construed to imply a critical view of things, which was also illegal. Not only was it a crime to read such things, or own or publish them, but it was also a crime to fail to report someone who had, even if you yourself had not. This was a part of Korea’s National Security Law set in place in 1948.

Article 10 made it a crime to fail to report any one or more of the activities listed in articles 1 through 9, and such failure was punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. Article 10 was the reason that the families of citizens slaughtered on Cheju Island during the so-called Uprising of 1948-1949 neglected to seek to [End Page 357] claim or to bury the corpses of the dead. Over the course of one year and then more, South Korean troops and contingents of the so-called Northwest Youths killed up to 60,000 civilians, literally decimating Cheju’s population. Some estimates, it should be noted, run as low as 20,000 killed, but it is impossible to tell how many were actually killed, since, according to the provisions of Article 10 in the National Security Law of 1948, to have been a family member or friend of someone killed by the South Korean military was proof of a breach of Article 10 for failure to report anti-state activity.

This same dynamic was a factor at the time of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising. Estimates are that 2,000 citizens of the city were killed by military forces sent there by the Chun Doo Hwan regime. Again, the precise number cannot be ascertained because to have claimed a body would have amounted to proof of failure to report a known violation of Article 1, or 2, or others, since how could anyone claim a body and not have known the anti-state ideas or activities of the deceased?

If this isn’t messed up, what possibly could be?

Into this realm stepped the poet Kim Chi Ha; or if that seems too theatrical, Kim Chi Ha published his long poem “Five Bandits” in World of Thought—Sasanggye—Journal in 1970, the midpoint of the Park Chung Hee regime. The poem satirized the corruption of character types from businessman to elected official, political appointee, and military commander, who were portrayed as taking gleeful advantage of the corruption endemic at that time in Korea’s political-cultural realms and snorting about it while tickling the breasts of their mistresses. It was a foul troop satirized in the poem, but what really galled the government and led to Kim’s arrest, suspension of the magazine, and detention of the editor, Chang Chunha, was the title of the poem. “Five Bandits” (O Chôk) was the phrase used to characterize the five government ministers who in 1910 signed over Korea’s sovereignty to the Japanese to start Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea. This was satire with a very sharp point to it indeed. [End Page 358]

“Groundless Rumors,” published in 1972, was a send-up of the law against spreading groundless rumors. Kim’s poem “Cry of the People,” published in 1974, constituted exactly that, for which Kim was arrested, sentenced to death, and...


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