Two Poems: : Kim Geung-Ryeol & Shoe-Shine Boy

Kim Geung-Ryeol


During the Japanese colonial period he attended Japan’s Military Academy,

became squadron leader

in the Japanese Military Flying Corps.

He fought against the American airborne marines

as an airforce squadron-leader.

He survived aerial warfare.

After Korea was liberated

he disappeared briefly

then turned up at the establishment of the Korean army.

He crossed over

from the hills on the other side to the hills this side.

He became the first Chief of General Staff of the Korean Airforce.

He became a friend of the American military, former enemies.

He became head of the Korean delegation at the UN Command,

the the last Minister of Defence

of Syngman Rhee’s Freedom Party regime.

He used to meet in the evenings with consuls from the American embassy.

He would go for drinks

at the Cheonggu-dong home of the American cultural attaché.


In the morning he went to greet Speaker Yi Gi-bung.

During the day he was summoned to the National Assembly

and bellowed replies to the opposition’s questions.

‘Citizens who demonstrate are insurgents,’ he said.

‘They’re all reds,’ he said.

The opposition assemblymen tore the microphone away.

Once the Syngman Rhee era was over,

he became first chairman

of Park Chung-hee’s Republican Party,

chairman of the Anticommunist League,

a national-constituency assemblyman for the Republican Party,

then proceeded into the world of business,

was active for ten years in the economic sphere.


Later, under the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-Hwan

he became chief vice-chairman

of the Consultative Committee on Peaceful Reunification

before finally becoming Chun Doo-Hwan’s last prime-minister.


And under the Rho Tae-Woo regime

he became a member of the Commission for Korean-Japanese Co-operation.


Such luck! What a long-drawn-out list of government posts!

Such comfort

without a trace of remorse!

How can there be

such a rise in the world

without the least pain?


How can there be

such a vulgar, show-off face

untouched by the bloody, oozing sorrow

of our country’s people?



Shoe-Shine Boy


At the age of fifteen he went out into the world.

Well, really

he didn’t have anything

except the world.

No father.

No mother.

After his father died

his mother went off somewhere and got married.

He lived at a cousin’s house for a while,

then went out into the world.

The world was more comfortable.


The freedom of an empty body in cold winds.


Though he was only fifteen,

his heart was thirty, if not forty.

For a time

he worked for a shoe-shine man

collecting the shoes of regular customers.

After that

he became an apprentice shoe-shine boy.


After forty-one years of shoe shining

he had his own stall at the entrance to a market.

Songs flowed freely from his lips

and he’d polish seventy or eighty pairs of shoes every day.


Then that day came!


He chanced to be caught up in the confusion

along the edge of a demonstration.


‘Hold the election again!

Hold the election again!’


On and on they ran.

His heart was burning. He collapsed.


The twenty-three shoe-shine men of New Masan pooled their money

and held a funeral for their dead comrade.

They even erected a gravestone:


Here sleeps O Seong-won.



Born in 1933 in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, Korea, is Korea’s foremost living writer. During the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. Ten years later he returned to the world. After years of dark nihilism, he became a leading spokesman in the struggle for freedom and democracy during the 1970s and 1980s. He has published more than 150 volumes of poems, essays and fiction. In recent years, more than 30 volumes of translations of his work have been published in some 20 languages. Read more at his website.

Brother Anthony was born in 1942 in England and completed his studies at Oxford before becoming a member of the Community of Taizé (France) in 1969. Since 1980, he has been living in Korea and teaching at Sogang University, where he is now an Emeritus Professor. He has published some thirty volumes of English translations of modern Korean literature, including the novel The Poet by Yi Mun-yol and poetic works by Ko Un, So Chong-Ju, Ku Sang, Chon Sang-Pyong. For this he was awarded the Korean Government’s Order of Cultural Merit (Jade Crown) in 2008. He is President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch.

Lee Sang-Wha is an emeritus professor in the English Department of Chung Ang University, Seoul, and has published seven volumes of translations of English literature including two prose works by Gary Snyder.



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