Portions of translated poems from "Aspects of Diaspora in Modern Korean Poetry" by Sŭnghŭi Kim, translated by Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)

A chapter in Diaspora in Korean (Immigrant) Literature. Ed. Seong-Kon Kim and So-Hee Lee.  The International Association of Comparative Korean Studies and Seoul National University American Studies Institute. 2004.


(. . .)

Kim Tonghwan¡¯s long epic poem Kukgyŏng ŭi pam (Night at the frontier, 1925) depicts the appalling poverty sweeping through colonized Korea, a veritable land of death, and the dreadful existence of refugees living along the Tumen River who risked their lives crossing the river marking the frontier, obliged to seek for food in Manchuria. The poem, the first-person narrator of which is a wife who has sent her husband away, evokes her unending fear for her husband¡¯s fate, after he left in a cart carrying contraband salt for fear of the boarder guards and of the bandits on the other side of the river:


Ah, has he got safely across?

Tonight has my husband crossed

the Tumen River without accident?

Dark police guards in overcoats come and go

guarding the frontier marked by the river—

up and down busily, he must not be discovered,

has he got across safely? 

As he rides all night long

on a cart carrying smuggled salt,

the anxious young woman feebly turns the spinning wheel,

simply staring into the fish-oil lamp

and the northern winter¡¯s night slowly passes.¡¯


             The poem¡¯s poetic space is a village on the frontier close to the Tumen River, the time is a winter¡¯s night. In this extreme time and place, as the wife worries about the fate of her husband on his journey to smuggle salt into Manchuria, every sound that strikes her ear seems like a herald of death:


She hears a sharp sound, ¡®Oy!¡¯

suddenly emerge from somewhere underground.

From the west something coming, a password,

The villagers are confused and shudder in fear; the wife alone

reckons it¡¯s her husband¡¯s voice, strikes her breast,

sighs a long sigh.

It was just the sound of forest rangers coming down late

amidst the snow storm after burning charcoal.


Wrapped in the mournful soughing of the wind

that sounded like a sick man¡¯s last groan,

a ¡®tang¡¯ sound split the night sky.

While people listened to the sound of noisy foot-steps,

turning pale with fright at the thought that

another accident had occurred,

holding their breath,

the wife reckons it¡¯s about her husband

struck down before ever he can cross the river,

and grasping the door-frame, she weeps sobbing.

Winter lasts three months and when the starlight permit

there¡¯s a sound of fishermen cutting through the ice.


             Within this evocative poetic space, there is not even a trace of the crowds of refugees.


The electric lines are weeping

and the telegraph lines permitting

international exchanges weep much more.

Houses, flocks of white sheep, the mountain valleys,

the donkey in the stable all cry likewise. Today is so cold

there are almost no people on their way to Manchuria.

There are almost no people on the move tonight,

those people from Hamkyŏng who night after night,

bearing bundles, cross over, lonely,

crossing the river that cuts across frozen wastes.


             These last are the wretched refugees who, unable to live under Japanese imperialism, have left their homes, and are crossing the Tumen River on their way to Manchuria.


With a shaking hand, the wife removed the scrap of rag.

There a corpse lay, bathed in its congealed blood.

With a cry, the wife collapses.

¡®It¡¯s true, he was shot by bandits. In the village on the other side.¡¯

As he speaks, the carter wipes his eye with a fist.

Moonlight like pure gold shone down on the man¡¯s corpse,

thirty years old, eldest son, shot by bandits.

¡®That shot just now, that cursed bandit, Ah, God, No!

The icy waste is divided again.

The three people weep long through the night,

their tears freezing.


The next morning, the sun infallibly emerged,

rising above the fields and thatched cottages;

far off, the wind sent the clothes of those crossing

into Manchuria flapping.


             In the end, then, the husband of the first-person narrator wife is shot by bandits and is brought back a frozen corpse, and during his wretched funeral (¡®his body trussed in a coarse hemp gown¡¯), the sound of people crossing into Manchuria, even at the risk of becoming homeless wanderers, rings across the frozen waste.

             As they bury the body, that ¡®shows the fate of those forced to flee,¡¯ the villagers reflect, ¡®Ah, we¡¯ll end up like that, too!¡¯ as they acknowledge mockingly the wretched destiny of one who fled from the colonized land. Referring to those on the move to Manchuria, leaving in quest of a new land, within a dreadful reality far from any promise of rich fields and a secure future, this poem demonstrates clearly that the ¡®life¡¯ of Koreans under colonial rule is set at a crossroads: either risking one¡¯s life, crossing the Tumen River and becoming a migrant in Manchuria, or facing death by starvation and poverty under colonial rule at home.


(. . .)


Tales of refugees and migrants who have lost their nation and gone wandering are also a characteristic feature of the poems of Yi Yong-ak, whose original home was Kyŏngsŏng in North Hamhŭng Province. To the migrants, the Tumen River is the frontier of their beloved home, the Korean peninsula, while the land called China is reported to hold anti-Japanese guerillas, and the leaders of the Provisional Government in Exile, and now they are in Kando where there is reported to be land available for clearing, and one of his poems about the separations under Japanese imperialism, ¡®Tuman Kang¡¯ (Tumen River), contains a play on words between ¡®Kohyang and T¡¯alhyang¡¯ ¡®home-land and lost-land¡¯.


I bow my head like a sinner, silent as an elephant.

You, Tumen River, our river,

I sat in the train speeding across your hills

without any trace of pride or freedom.


There is nothing to be seen,

your breast is frozen.

but I know,

a part of your current is unceasingly flowing

toward the sea, your necessary destination.


Now the train is speeding as a train should,

while in the fields across the river in the raging wind

my young life

stands as if waiting for something, as if frozen to the spot

while my cursed fate simply prepares night over night.


Do not sleep, you river of ours.

Sorrow is thirsty, as if treading on your breast tonight again,

the frozen path is harsh, the journey long.

Are there no black wings

that will deign to cover the eyes of my heart?

Tumen River, you, our river.

I am off to North Kando.

Looking out over Kangwŏn Province,

I am so lonely I have forgotten how to weep.

           (From: Yi Yong-ak, ¡®Tumangang nŏ uri ŭi kang a¡¯ (Tumen River, you, our river.))


(. . .)


¡®Hyŏnhaet¡¯an is eternally a straits for the young¡¯ Im Hwa wrote in his essay ¡®Hyŏnhaet¡¯an,¡¯ in which it is possible to see its value as a symbol of the modern.


Art, scholarship, unshakeable truth . . .

such dreaming thoughts turning high above Tokyo,

then after learning all, gaining all skills,

and once again riding over the waves of this sea,

in the dark night of my sorrowful home

I will become a star burning more brightly than any torch.

My youthful heart surges higher than the waves of the sea.


In one of Im Hwa¡¯s poems contained in the volume Hyŏnhaet¡¯an, ¡®Romanticism of the Straits,¡¯ the symbolic value of the Genkai Sea is summarized as ¡®a romanticism of the heart gazing at the long shadow cast by the Japanese Islands¡¯ and to the youthful speaker of the poem, its ¡®I,¡¯ the homeland is nothing but darkness and night in which he suddenly appears, eager to kindle and illuminate the darkness by means of his enlightened reason and passion as ¡®a star burning more brightly than any torch.¡¯ The Genkai Sea becomes an image as a ¡®sea of hope across which I return after learning art, scholarship, truth¡¯, a romantic view of the straits.

             Yet in another poem from the same volume, ¡®Nunmul ŭi haehyŏp¡¯ (Strait of tears), the Genkai Sea, quite opposed to that romantic view of the straits, is termed ¡®sea where a new fate screeches like a crow,¡¯ a sea full of death and ¡®tears,¡¯ fateful separations, thanks to the history of suffering of all who have been colonized.


Child, the night on the straits is so fearful.


Is it really the wind that is driving forward this great boat we are on? Or the waves?

Ah, surely it¡¯s the strange destiny of what is called the Genkai Sea?

You and I are crossing this sea like logs roped together.


Here the Genkai Sea is a place of death where the Korean people float about ¡®like logs roped together,¡¯ and at the same time, a sea of the imperial power ruled by ¡®foreign curses.¡¯

             In the poem ¡®Hyŏnhaet¡¯an,¡¯ the ¡®strange destiny¡¯ of the Genkai Sea set between the imperial power and the colony is expressed in a complex way:


The waves of this sea

have been high since long ago.


(. . .)


But now

white faces have grown hard

in foreign water, wind and rain,

while heavy tasks

have bent every weary back like those of farmers.


I know the pitiful names of several people

who have drifted away, scattered on this sea like so many petals.


Some crossed over but never returned.

Some returned and died at once.

Some, there is no knowing if they are alive or dead.

Some wept, defeated.


If among them any shamefully sold

hope, resolve and pride,

I have no wish to remember that now.


Thus the Genkai Sea is a ¡®sea of hope¡¯ bringing the youth of Chosŏn face to face with a new Modernity but it is also a sea of calamity, with people who go but do not return. Certainly there is the Hyŏnhaet¡¯an that provokes the romantic cry of hope ¡®Hyŏnhaet¡¯an, for ever our straits!¡¯ but while people are still on board the ships crossing it, it sees the start of the sufferings and ruin of the colonized people:


Deep down in cheap cabins in hard beds

mothers learned to cry;

in the feeble lamplight, fathers sighed.

In the painful bitter weeping

of babes that have lost their parents

what sin was there?

I remember vividly the foreign word

that put to silence the sound of weeping.


             So the cabins of the ferries crossing back and forth across the Sea of Genkai become loci of the pain of separation, spaces of oppression / oppressed expressing the psychological tension between colonizers and colonized, the power-relationship of domination / submission. At the same time, they are spaces where a foreign language oppresses, a cruel word in Japanese bursting out to quell the crying of a baby that has lost its parents.


Oh! One day

one day far far in the future,

together with our history of pain

I know that your wretched lives and hidden names

will be written large.

When the morning star shines on your names

inscribed upon the huge rough stone of the ruins

left when all has become past history:

¡®---------  -----------

of the 1890s, the 1920, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 19xx,¡¯

the waves of the Genkai Sea will whisper your life stories

among beautiful legends, like when we as children

used to drive shoals of fish into the shallows.


But meanwhile, we are still on the high waves of the sea.


Thus the Genkai Sea is a space full of hope for all the young Koreans heading for the imperialist land in order to obtain wealth, new knowledge, modernity and hope, while enduring pain and anguish, truly a sea of Diaspora.


(. . .)


Sim Yŏnsu¡¯s poem ¡®Manju¡¯ (Manchuria) expresses the agonies of the Koreans of the time, with nowhere to call their own.


Leaving home, hoping for a better life,

unable to live well in a foreign land,

in every place I went

I ever opened my spreading heart

in vain.


Resolving with a restless heart to get rewarding work,

sailing up the East Sea in a fishing boat,

the place we reached

was a vast plain.


A wide-open spot

exposed to the bitter north wind,

the thoughts we had nourished of setting up tents,

giving our traveling bodies rest

were nothing but a wanderer¡¯s dreams.

Sorrowful, pitiful parents and siblings,

efforts to endure nakedness and starvation,

still painful memories of tears

were all the bloodstains marking our colonized history.


             The tents set up on the barren steppes of Manchuria are an image symbolizing the lives of those refugees and migrants.


(. . .)


Im Hwa left Seoul in 1947 and went to Pyŏngyang; he followed the invading North Korean forces at the start of the Korean War, returning to Seoul and going on with them as far as the Naktong River before the intervention of the UN forces routed the North Koreans, at which he again crossed the 38th Parallel. Forced to flee northward beyond Pyŏngyang as far as the Manchurian border, he longed to see the daughter Hyeran, nineteen years old, whom he had left behind in the South and in December 1950 published ¡®Nŏ ŏnŭ kos e ittnŭnya¡¯ (Where are you?).


What are you thinking, where are you in this

snowstorm with its icy wind,

with your hair still covering your forehead,

braided round your glowing face?


Are you high in the blustery hills,

thinking of your father

with his grizzled hair?

Are you out standing on a path through the fields

at sunset, thinking of your mother

who was always in agonies with her heart frail as paper?


(. . .)


Now your father, leaving the clear-voiced Naktong River

has come to a deep mountain valley in Chagang Province

where every rapids in the lengthy streams is weeping

and the fold upon fold of cliff-like mountains,

passing so many villages burned and destroyed

by the vicious enemy,

having visited our beloved Seoul and Pyongyang,

and is thinking of you, who can have no idea where I am,

and singing this song,

my darling child.


(. . .)


If you do not die but survive

and are able to meet with me again,

under our nation¡¯s fluttering flag

in the joy of victory we will celebrate

our meeting in tears, and if ever, alas,

you have departed this life,

and do not return though I call and call,

if you cannot hear my hoarsely calling voice,

your father¡¯s warm hand, your mother¡¯s trembling hand,

your younger brother¡¯s little hand,

the hard hands of our comrades

in that lonely, far-off place . . .


(. . .)


Deep at night while winds weep unceasing all night long

in some distant heaven,

know that your grizzled-haired father,

your mother in agonies with her heart frail as paper,

your little baby brother

cannot sleep thinking of you.


My darling child.

Where are you now?


(. . .)


Chŏn Ponggŏn was a poet who left the North.


Late February

waiting for a boat

on a quayside of a river

flowing through hills,

I suddenly realized

that was the very spot

where one day in spring 1951

my comrade in arms ¡®K¡¯ met his death

during a river crossing operation.

As the sun was setting,

about to board the ship that had arrived,

I picked up a stone, white like a rotting bone,

from the icy water on the quay

where the spring snow had melted.

It looked like a bone from a bird¡¯s wing.

Over toward the rapids, where dark was already falling,

a bird was flying, name unknown.               (From: ¡®Tol (Stone) 1¡¯)


If the stone, absorbing into itself the agonies of war and the death of a comrade and enduring the processes of time, is seen as a symbol for the thirsty life of the victim of warfare, the bird represents that victim¡¯s dream of liberation, longing to gain freedom even in spite of death.


One stone buried in a sandbank

has no words.


Turning into a great bird

flying through the sand of the sandbank,

it has no words.


(. . .)


Pak Namsu was originally from South Pyŏngan Province, like Chŏn Ponggŏn, then he fled South at the time of the retreat of the North Koreans in January 1951, and finally moved to the US.


In a foreign land, amidst foreign people,

I¡¯ll just be alone. And

maybe there will never again be

a chance to meet old friends

in the region of Myŏng-dong or Kwanghwamun.

Just as, after leaving mother¡¯s breast at home,

there could be no returning to her,

once we leave, sad, sad fate decrees

there is no going back again.  (From: ¡®Sŏul esŏ¡¯ (In Seoul))


If things that fly are known as wings, now

I am a wing. Seen from high up, Seoul

gets smaller and smaller until now

it¡¯s just one grain of sand. Down there

for a long time I wept, laughed, fought,

lived smelling the smells of really close people.


(. . .)


dipping its wings, the D.C. 10 circles in farewell. Now

I too, dipping my wings,

make the sad circle of my slanting life.             (From: ¡®Isu¡¯ (Taking off from worries)


             Thus, by the image of the bird he depicts what life is to a poet who parted from his mother and settled in the South at the time of the early 1951 retreat, lost his family, then took leave of his friends in the South through his move to the United States.


Sitting on the beach at Santa Monica,

gazing far out to the west

one oriental, I, Pak Namsu, think of my homeland

away west, but in fact

to the east where the sun rises.

Of my countrymen, those pitying seagulls

rising and falling in my breast, their sobbing cries.

Those mournful movements.            

(From: ¡®Sŏjjok, kŭ sirŭn dongjjok¡¯ (Westward, or rather eastward))


The very life of Koreans living within the situation of division is a seagull, indeed all life in troubled times is that of the seagull.


A seagull takes the wrong turn

down a street between skyscrapers.

A seagull that once cried sadly

in Pusan harbor!

No reason for withholding tears,

let¡¯s weep the troubled age

like Tu Fu, like Tu Fu.

weeping sad days of heaviness

perhaps in Namp¡¯o, perhaps in Tadaep¡¯o,

perhaps beside the Hudson River.    

(From: ¡®Maenhat¡¯an ŭi kalmaegi¡¯ (Gulls of Manhattan))