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!
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?
At the age of fifteen he went out into the world.
he didn’t have anything
except the world.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Ko Unis 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.