David Prater Interviews Ko Un

By | 1 December 2009

DP: Right. You've described how you invented for yourself a fictional sister, early on in your life. I'm very interested in why that fiction was created – for instance, why a sister and not a brother? Who or what did she symbolise?

KU: That was a sort of aspiration, a longing somehow for a an aspect of my own soul, the female aspect. And so instead of writing poems lamenting the absence of a sister, I created a sister to fulfill that longing. That sort of dream ideal has turned into reality now that I have a wife and daughter [laughs].

DP: In terms of that character, or that sister, you've described how Maninbo is an attempt to write about every single person in your life. The people whom you've written about in Maninbo, could they be seen as being similar to that sister character, i.e. not being a particular person but a type of person?

KU: I never remember the poems I've written so I can't answer because I don't know. I never memorise anything …

DP: Okay, all right. Is there anyone you couldn't write about? Anyone who is not in that book?

KU: There's nobody excluded but now that I've finished Maninbo I keep realising that I didn't write about this person or that person – and the most obvious person is King Sejong [who actually lived in the 15th century – note] … so I have an urgent task, I feel I must really write about King Sejong because he didn't get a mention in Maninbo.

DP: When did you know that you had finished the book?

KU: My promise was that I would write thirty volumes. I'm not saying that I'll never write any more Maninbo poems – that could happen. But at the moment the promise of the thirty volumes is fulfilled. So long as there is life in my hand I can go on writing.

DP: Turning to a very different issue, you've spent a lot of time and energy as an activist, both in the political and cultural senses. And during your life you've witnessed Korea's transformation from dictatorship to democracy. What does democracy mean to you? Do you think that democracy has been successful in Korea, and if not how could it be improved?

KU: Democracy isn't the greatest human happiness, but it's the ability, or the situation where you can overcome the past and live according to values. It can always be better, it's always possible to perfect it and improve it, so that living within a democratic situation you're always hoping to move towards something more perfect. There never has been any perfect democratic situation … Nietzsche for example despised democracy – I don't, but I can understand why he had this kind of negative attitude towards it, seeing it as some sort of 'low' … You have these very high values but they have to be approved by many, many people. This majority rule doesn't always produce the highest vision …

DP: Obviously very recently Koreans lost a great democrat in [former President] Kim Dae Jung. What do you believe will be his legacy?

KU: He was a politician, and I'm a poet. But in the time of the struggle for democratisation, whether you were a poet or a politician or a religious figure or whatever, we were all struggling together for one vision. So naturally at that time you were working together and you were close and you became friends because of democracy. And then once democracy is achieved and Kim Dae Jung once again becomes an active politician, then the poet withdraws in that situation.

You can also see Kim Dae Jung as a kind of Asian Mandela – suffering for this vision; for the vision to come into reality he had to endure many, many things, that's for sure. But in any case, the present time is no longer a time for figures of that kind. We're past the point where these individual figures matter in that way … Kim Dae Jung had this dream and this deep vision of reunification, of the oneness of the two Koreas, and that is his essential legacy.

Now perhaps there's more strain and more conflict between the two, but this in any case is part of a wider North-East Asian context, and you can hope that we can come again to a time when between North and South there's a happier relationship, there's more exchanges and meetings. In order to achieve that, Kim Dae Jung's vision remains essential and something we must always bear in mind.

DP: On that subject, and I guess you're asked this question a lot, but Kim Dae Jung's metaphorical counterpart or opposite was and still is Kim Jong-il. You met him on the occasion of the Inter-Korean summit in 2000. Did you speak to him, and if so what did he say to you?

KU: No, because there was a lot of people around there was no opportunity to talk together, but we did exchange glasses of wine, drank together.

DP: The poem you read out on that day, 'At the Taedong River' – do you know if it was transmitted or shared with the North Korean people?

KU: Maybe … the North Koreans also welcome me very much. I've been to North Korea since.

DPDP: Can you tell me a little more about that?

KU: Because of this division between North and South, the Korean language on the two sides is diverging, and in order to help prevent too big a divergence there is a plan now to publish a joint 'great' dictionary. So you have scholars, linguists and writers from North and South working together on this project and I am the Chairman of it. And so from time to time I go when they have meetings to go on with this very official project. So from time to time I go there. But I do not actually want to visit North Korea too often.

DP: In your view do South Koreans now, as opposed to 2000, view unification as inevitable or impossible?

KU: There was a whole process of coming closer, reconciliation in the process leading to the two summits and now at present there is a certain regression, a growth in tension, but that is also not something that necessarily will last forever. It's the way things go in life, a few steps forward a couple of steps back, you cannot expect it to be otherwise. There's always, still, the hope of a growing closeness, a growing reconciliation to overcome the past.

DP: One final question, you've described your poetry as like a 'flow', like a river. You use the metaphor of the river quite a lot in your poetry – for example, in your novel Little Pilgrim there's the River Ganges, as central to the idea of a life narrative. Given that you've expressed your desire in the end to be remembered not as a poet but as a poem, what kind of poem would you be, and is that poem a river?

KU: The question is enough in itself, there's no way you can answer a question like that. Better to leave it as a question! … [laughs] Actually, I met some Indian poets, and it was one of the Indian poets who said 'you're not a poet, you're a poem!'

DP: [laughs]: Ah, so that's where it came from, it wasn't your idea at all!

KU: No. We're all living poems …

This interview was conducted as part of Cordite editor David Prater's Asialink residency in Seoul, sponsored by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation.

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