November 10, 2003

Searching for Korean Peace

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The East Asia Program and the Korean Students Association hosted three days of events last week for Korea Peace Day, begun by 25 universities devoted to the current crisis in the Korean peninsula. The events, organized in association with the International Communications Foundation in Seoul, South Korea, started with a movie and discussion on Thursday and ended on Saturday with readings from two Korean authors, a panel discussion and a movie.

The highlight of the events was a reading and panel discussion with two prominent Korean authors. Im Ch’or-u and Yang Kwi-ja both read selections from their works in Korean, followed by English translations. A panel discussion after the readings, also facilitated by a translator, covered issues ranging from an author’s responsibility to writing in an environment burdened by hatred.

Before the discussion began, the authors also read short essays on their writing. Yang talked about a literary crisis in Korea that she said was due to elitism on behalf of literary critics. She said that literature currently has such prestige in Korea that no consideration is given to authors whose works are widely read. Asked to expound on this, Yang said that she commonly disregards the critics’ opinions.

“We don’t take them seriously,” she said. “Literature comes first, and they follow.”

Although many of Im’s works are very serious, he said that he does not feel comfortable writing serious, multi-volume novels. He said that people “show an allergic reaction” to some of his serious works, but he feels that they have not yet reached their audience. He said that awareness of one’s mistakes should help readers enjoy novels.

“The one thing I really want to do is write a fun novel,” he added.

Prof. Michael Shin, Asian studies, was pleased to have the authors present.

“I believe this is the first time South Korean authors of this prominence have come to Cornell,” he said.

Young-Mi Kim grad was also excited to meet such prominent authors and said she was pleased with the discussion. She added that although the question she asked the authors was very tricky, they answered it well.

“Events like this will probably contribute to reviving Korean literature,” she said.

Mijeong Park, a graduate student at SUNY-Buffalo, said that although she had read their works before, “listening to their literature in Cornell, in America, is a different experience.”

She said that the authors were well-prepared for the discussion but that the discussion was too individualized instead of being in a seminar setting.

The weekend’s events started on Thursday, which was Korea Peace Day. The evening began with a documentary titled The Game of Their Lives, depicting North Korea’s unexpected success in the 1966 World Cup competition in England. North Korea tied Chile and surprised the world by beating Italy to place into the quarterfinals, where they lost to Portugal after a 3-0 lead.

More surprising than North Korea’s wins, however, was the welcome they enjoyed in London. Although the Korean War was still fresh in everyone’s minds, the Koreans found themselves being cheered on by the crowd. According to the film, this was greatly due to the fact that the first round was held in the working-class city of Middlesbrough, where the crowd had a natural liking toward underdogs.

The movie was followed by a discussion lead by Shin and Prof. Victor Koschmann, history, who started with a brief review of the Koreas’ history. Among points raised were that the struggle is not even technically over yet — only the United States and North Korea signed the armistice to end the conflict — and that propaganda is present on both sides of the issue.

Questions discussed included ignorance of certain issues, threats of military action and the economic effects of a unified North and South Korea.

“The only people who really want unification are the average Koreans on both sides,” Shin said.

Koschmann added that “from Japan’s perspective, a unified Korea could be a hostile Korea.”

David Patt, outreach director for the East Asia Program, said Korea Peace Day was started by scholars who are concerned about the growing danger of war breaking out on the Korean peninsula. He explained that the weekend’s events were focused on educating people about the situation there.

“A war in Korea would be far more devastating than anything we experienced in Iraq,” he said.

Other events included a lecture on Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 by Prof. Yi Tae-Jin, Korean history, Seoul National University, which Patt said “is very important background to understanding Korean history and how the Korean desire for independence is so strong.”

The weekend ended with a showing of To the Starry Island, a movie based on one of Im’s novels, and a talent show put on by the KSA with a guest appearance by the Korean-American comedian PK from Los Angeles.

Josh Keh ’05 described the talent show as a wrap-up to the weekend. He said that the night is the biggest event the KSA puts on in the fall and that it was included as part of the Korea Peace Day schedule in order to balance the serious issues with a lighter event.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit