It seems that most Koreans tend to think that the world is made of angels and demons, friends and enemies, or good and bad. It never seems to occur to Koreans that demons are fallen angels, yesterday’s friends can be today’s enemies and good persons may turn out to be bad persons and vice versa.
Likewise, Koreans tend to think that the world is made of left-wing progressives and right-wing conservatives only, and do not realize the existence of neutral liberals and moderate traditionalists.
In the eyes of foreigners, therefore, Koreans may look devoid of tolerance, generosity and the capacity to embrace differences, which seriously restrains them from holding a dual perspective that allows for the understanding of different perspectives.
Now we live in a world where there is no absolute good or bad, and the boundary between them is arbitrary and thus radically dismantling. Great literary works have constantly reminded us of the danger of perceiving things in the binary opposition. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” for example, illuminates us by presenting wicked Gollum as the ruined form of the Hobbit, and ugly Orcs as the perverted form of charming Elves. In “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Sirius Black, who Harry initially thinks of as the absolute evil, turns out to be his guardian angel. Moreover, the novel constantly revolves around the motif of metamorphosis, once again emphasizing the theme: “Appearances can be deceptive.” In “Angels and Demons,” Dan Brown also defies the conventional boundary between good and evil by showing us how those presumably angelic men can easily turn into demons.
Recently, I received an email from a Korean poet who was devastated due to an outrageous ideological assault from a militant leftist literary critic. The poet was one of the few representative Korean poets whose poem, which was dedicated to the April 19 Student Revolution, was engraved on a monument.
The critic vehemently asserted in a seminar that only leftist poets’ poems should be allowed to remain and all others must be banished from the monument. The reason was simple; it was leftists who had fought against the dictatorship. Then the self-righteous critic specifically mentioned the names of the non-leftist poets as if they were national traitors and absolute evil.
Historically, leftists have always been extremely exclusive and hostile toward non-leftists. And they always want a scapegoat they can condemn, so they can be immune from criticism and look honest instead.
Perhaps this is why Korean leftists began condemning Yi Kwangsu in the 1970s and 1980s as an unpardonable pro-Japanese intellectual. There were so many pro-Japanese Korean intellectuals during the Japanese occupation. Why, then, does only Yi Kwangsu have to be blamed and condemned so severely as if he was an unpardonable sinner?
Obviously, Korean leftists chose Yi Kwangsu, the father figure of modern Korean literature, as a scapegoat, so they could be safe and looked absolutely righteous and truthful. Besides, leftist writers surely wanted to deny the authenticity of modern Korean literature by claiming that it was wrong from the beginning and thus invalid, because it was tainted by unpatriotic activities of its leader Yi Kwangsu.
Then, they wanted to replace authentic Korean literature with left-wing literature, which they thought was the absolute truth. Once again, the “we’re always right; all others are invariably wrong” mentality prevailed in the ruthless leftist campaign to criticize Yi Kwangsu.
Unfortunately, Korean society has long been plagued by this juvenile “either/or” mentality of excluding others. As a result, one can find numerous invisible signboards everywhere in Korea: “Our Faction Only. All Others Keep Out.”
In his insightful, thought-provoking book, “Apology for Yi Kwangsu,” Lee Joong-o, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of SUNY/Buffalo points out that it is, in fact, a mental disease that requires therapy. Intellectuals and writers should say, “No!” when all people say “Yes!” However, many Korean intellectuals and writers do not seem to have the courage to speak up and thus remain silent, even though they know something is seriously wrong. Other people, who are opportunistic, choose to join the trend and collaborate with the leftists in condemning Yi Kwangsu, which heightens what Lee called “the national frenzy.”
Granted Yi Kwangsu was undeniably pro-Japanese, we still need to listen to what he had to say. In “My Confessions” Yi writes: “When I returned to Korea at the age 30, I dreamed of being a Gandhi for my country. Therefore, my pro-Japanese activities had nothing to do with my own personal benefits, safety or political power. Naively, I thought I did it for my people; I wanted to save the 38,000 Koreans whose name was on the Japanese colonial government’s elimination list at the cost of my honor.”
As Prof. Lee Joong-o maintains, human beings are much more complex than anything else on earth. Thus we cannot judge a person as simply good or bad. We need to take into consideration all the complex issues regarding his psychological aspects and socio-political milieu. The world is not made of angels and demons only. There are humans in between.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.