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Can Ye Not Serve God and Mammon? ‘Quo Vadis, Korean Megachurches?’

Three Wise Monkeys - Sat, 12/13/2014 - 06:33

By Donald Kirk

The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul.

The growth of megachurches worldwide is a global phenomenon, a mass movement in which thousands of individual churches or parishes each claim more than 2,000 members. The Full Gospel Church in Yoido is the world’s largest, with hundreds of thousands attending 10 or more services every Sunday.  Nearly half the world’s 50 biggest Christian megachurches are in Korea if we define Christian, as do Koreans, to mean Protestant or non-Catholic, though Catholics are most definitely Christians.

The rise of the megachurch in Korea is ironic indeed considering that early Christians, Catholic and then Protestant missionaries, had to suffer and die in their struggle to spread the word of God in the late Chosun dynasty. These days, however, Korea’s Christian churches are wealthy and influential. In fact, they face an age-old problem, as the apostle Matthew wrote: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon”–one of the most quoted lines from the bible that I remember hearing so often as a student decades ago at an Episcopal school near Boston.

Clearly a number of Korean pastors, most famously the Rev. David Cho, founder of the Full Gospel Church, have had to wrestle with this paradox. How could they rationalize the joy in enriching themselves from donations, from church coffers, from church enterprises, with the biblical injunction to serve God, not money?

A new documentary, “Quo Vadis,” released on December 10 and directed by Kim Jae-hwan, who worked as a producer and director at MBC for five years, addresses this question in an exposé of the greed and hypocrisy seen in the rise of some of Seoul’s largest churches.

The name “Quo Vadis” is appropriate. It means, “Where are you going?,” the question that the apostle Peter asked Jesus Christ after Christ had risen from the dead. Christ is said to have responded that he was going to Rome to be crucified again. In this documentary, which includes fictional as well as starkly factual material as well, Jesus, played by Nam Myung-ryul asks, “Quo Vadis, the Korean churches?”

The question to which director Kim Jae-hwan wants an answer from the real-life characters in the film is, “Are you a real follower of Jesus?” The title evokes memories of the 1951 American film classic “Quo Vadis” about the corruption of the Roman emperor Nero as he persecutes Christians. That’s a relevant image considering the corruption exposed in this documentary.

Director Kim, mingling fact with fiction, opens with an actor in the role of “Michael More.” The name is a play on Michael Moore, the famous American documentary filmmaker, and “In Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium),” the heavily satirical work of Erasmus, published in 1511, that gave voice to the revolt against Catholicism, the “Protestant Reformation.” More, played by Lee Jong-yun, is seen chasing after pastors, asking embarrassing questions about their transgressions. These range from pilfering church funds to exploiting young women to passing on control of their churches to their sons to building huge edifices costing many billions of won. The pastors tend to respond with outrage when pressed for answers.

As a foreigner, I have always been greatly impressed by the role of Christianity in Korea. Historically, Christians were at the forefront of uprisings against Japanese rule, and the dedication of Christians on a mass level to biblical teaching shows devotion not seen in many Christian countries. This low-budget film, three or four years in planning and production, at a cost of about 300 million won, tells another story. Pastors, clothed in clerical garb, are also mere mortals capable of sinning like the rest of us.

Kim cites a poll showing that pastors in Korea have the “lowest credibility along with politicians,” proving “that the Korean churches are distorting the gospel of Jesus.” Deepening the message, the actor, Nam Myung-ryul, who plays the
role of Jesus, also appears as a pastor filled with doubt about whether he should have built a megachurch, wondering if he truly “followed the road of Jesus” and feeling “miserable” as he wonders if he truly “followed the road of Jesus.”

The quest for comments from real-life pastors, caught before the relentless camera, shows their reluctance to face up to their abuse of power. Kim compares Korea’s churches to those in the Middle Ages when church and state were intertwined and priests were “mediator between God and human being.” Martin Luther and other reformers, rebelling against the priests, disputed that role, but “Korea Protestantism has taught that pastors are the servant of the Lord, and the only one who can judge the pastors is the Lord.”

The film has only to record a few sermons by powerful pastors, notably Cho of the Full Gospel Church, to reveal their lack of humility in the face of revelations of misconduct. The film also links the pastors’ corruption to national leadership. “The most humiliating event of Korean Christianity,” the director believes,” was a prayer meeting at which President Chun Doo-hwan, shortly after the brutal suppression of the Gwangju revolt in May 1980, “was blessed” by “cowardly pastors.” Jesus, played by Nam, emerges on camera to show “the humiliation of Jesus when they were praying for the commander.”

But how many Koreans will be able to see the film now that it’s been released? The fear is that multiplex theaters will refuse to show it. “Koreans say the churches have more power than the president,” says Kim. For those who do get to see it, “Quo Vadis” will impress them as a forceful, dramatic reminder of the need for Korea’s Christian leaders to return to the worship of God, not mammon.


Donald Kirk has been covering the Korean peninsula for more than four decades. He is a veteran correspondent and noted author on conflict and crisis from Asia to the Middle East. He has covered wars from Vietnam to Iraq, focusing on political, diplomatic, economic and social as well as military issues.

He most recently published “Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent.” His Web site is

Contact him at

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The ‘Former’ French Concession in Shanghai

Three Wise Monkeys - Sat, 12/13/2014 - 06:31

By Jake Reed

What comes to mind for the average person when they hear Shanghai? I asked a few of my coworkers and I received a series of answers ranging from “bustling” to “retard zombie apocalypse.” Others just couldn’t capture Shanghai with such brevity, and instead replied with thoughtful phrases such as: a foreign business infested toxic dump; a filthy Venice with canals in lieu of sewers; Disneyland for alcoholics; and something akin to a foreign trash refuge.   It is a busy city and certainly not the cleanest.  The weather also isn’t famous, the food is alright, and I’ve only had food poisoning twice this year.

I live in Shanghai and, more specifically, the Former French Concession.  Like the artist formerly known as Prince, this area has been proudly decreed a former.  Naturally, like most linguistically lazy people, I would usually leave out the former part and stick with the latter until one hateful text message from a realtor set me straight.  The story goes a bit something like this:

After being asked where in Shanghai I was interested in living, I responded with the French Concession.  It has nice restaurants, tree-canopied streets and foreigner friendly shopping. There’s a night life, a café life and interesting sights for avid people watchers who want to sample a mix of humanity.  Living here just made sense to a former resident of Seoul’s Itaewon.  However, my realtor didn’t share the same sentiments.  Her response was something like, “You can get in a lot of trouble here (China?  Shanghai?  Her smoke filled office?) for saying that (does everyone here hate the French too?).  After responding in a polite yet firm, what the *%&$ are you talking about, she went off on some nationalistic rant about how China’s growing and doesn’t need help from colonialists etc.  Being an American who endured the Fox News Generation, followed by a few years in South Korea with lots of practice in dealing with fallacious, “my country is better than yours” rants had prepped me well for maintaining a mask of indifference.  I wasn’t really bothered by the content of this experience so much as its conclusion: I was going to have to find a new realtor.

Needless to say, I eventually found a realtor more concerned with making money as opposed to splitting hairs over the names of neighborhoods.  They only charged me about a hundred dollars more than any other foreigner living in the 30 floor building and that’s not bad given the norm here.

Old Shanghai and the French Concession

So, how did the French come to Shanghai and how did they pull off getting their own “concession”? First off, you have to understand a bit of history.  China lost the Opium Wars against the British.  The name of the war is misleading, as the biggest reason for Britain’s navy laying waste to China’s “coastal defences” was for free trade. By free trade, I mean the kind that favors the guys with the biggest guns.  One legacy of this is that China opened up to trade, and that’s where Shanghai comes in.  It’s a port city and that’s where a lot of this “trade” trade would happen effectively putting this city on the map.

Another legacy from the war was that China no longer had jurisdiction over foreigners within its borders.  So, not only were they forced at gunpoint to trade with Western powers, they were forced to play nice and let Westerners live there without being subject to its very own laws.  Thus a concession was born.  While I am now subject to China’s laws and preferred titles (add a former or beware), I still get to see old-school architecture and am subject to the international vibe that has so far charmed me into staying.

On any given day, I walk out through the gates of the first floor onto the street, and fall under the shadow of the birch trees that uniformly decorate the sidewalk.  If the size of the trees is any indicator of age, many of them have been around for quite some time—perhaps even when you could still call this the French Concession without the threat of being verbally abused.  Beyond that, in the late 1990’s, even more trees were planted as part of a “beautification” project.  One of the Shanghai slogans is “Better City, Better life.”  Yet I think beautification might have been a codeword for pollution-fighting which means a better catch phrase would be “Less pollution, less cancer.”

The journey to the metro takes me past a dodgy massage parlor that proudly displays its number in plain view in case you want a “house call” to be made.  Brave joggers with and without masks can be seen hitting the streets early and skillfully dodging neglected piles of dog dung. The name of this street is Hengshan Lu and it is a landmark street that cuts through the Concession and is the savior for many a foreigner with meager language skills looking for holy ground.  Taking in the entirety of Hengshan Lu is impossible as it snakes through the heart of the Concession formerly known as French.  Near the metro exits, multiple bars with patios decorate the corner offering specials that only a tourist would consider a good deal.  However, it is not common to see foreigners here (ever) because they are over-priced and rely on the ignorance of travelers as opposed to the clientele of the foreign community.  Another possible sight early in the morning are inebriants still up from the night before.  These characters range from college students to beer-stained businessmen. Depending of what kind of person you are in the morning, such sights can cause comic relief or grumpy annoyance.

Lastly, if you happen to spill out of these same exits in the evening you run the risk of having your precious oxygen invaded by the foulest of smells: the dreaded stinky tofu.  As if the pollution was not bad enough,  an ill-timed commute home can assault one’s senses further.  While locals seem to embrace it as a delicacy, I dry heave at the very thought of it.  The smell is in a league of its own but if I had to describe it, I would say it’s a mixture of hot garbage and neglected dumpster rot (or a dead ape as some smelly French cheeses are compared to).  Vendors set up shop where the stairs meet the streets in hopes of dumping something that belongs in a toilet (IMHO) in your hands.  Nevertheless, though some French might turn up their noses and say “ew!” or “déguelace!” I have to believe they’d enjoy walking around their Concession, former or not.

In the next installment, the author will cover what happens when the sun sets and some of the unsavory characters and sights emerge that provide the yin in contrast to the music and funk-laden savants who provide the yang.

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Jake Reed has been exploring the extremities of the human condition for the last nine years and he currently teaches in China. He’s watched, he’s journeyed, he’s observed and he currently teaches to make his rent. He writes because he realizes that it’s his art and without such he’d probably be on meds.

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The Wonhyo Trail Project–Rebuilding One Monk’s Path across Korea

Three Wise Monkeys - Sat, 12/13/2014 - 06:29

By Tony MacGregor

Group works to establish Korea’s first sustainable pilgrimage trail to honor Wonhyo, historic, beloved monk

A plan to establish a sustainable trans-peninsula pilgrimage trail to honor Korea’ most beloved and controversial monk took a step forward recently as project supporters mapped out the trail, met with government officials and added partners to the project.

Some members of the Wonhyo Trail Committee spent the last week of September 2014 travelling through the mountains, meeting with abbots of temples and mapping  the trail. The trail is expected to run from Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, to Wonhyo’s cave near Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.  It is planned to link into the worldwide, growing trend for pilgrimages and spiritual journeys, and to offer Korea an opportunity for local development in rural areas.

“The monks and abbots are almost universally enthusiastic about the trail,” said Tony MacGregor, a Canadian and chair of the Wonhyo Trail Committee. “It’s a question of harnessing the enthusiasm to make the trail a reality. It’s amazing that Wonhyo is still such a reality to many people more than 1,300 years after he lived.”

MacGregor said that the Wonhyo Trail Committee is growing in influence and strength with the addition of new individuals organizations, including the Seoul-based Millennium Destinations, which specializes in sustainable tourism development and promotion. He added that the committee had talked to government officials and were developing a plan to involve local governments, particularly the provinces through which the trail passes, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports  and Tourism, as well as national and international organizations interested in supporting the initiative.

Korea’s Jogye Order is helping with the project with planning and organizing and providing accommodation for the trail planners. MacGregor said the impetus for the project, which began in 2007, came from the impression Wonhyo created on foreigners who read his works and studied him.

Wonhyo (617 – 686), an eccentric and rebel, Korea’s most beloved and controversial monk, was a great scholar with more than 80 commentaries and essays to his credit. Born into a simple family in the Silla Kingdom, Wonhyo, a monk for many years, renounced the formal religious life to teach ordinary people. He was known to beat a gourd while dancing and singing in the village streets, encouraging people to chant and recite the Buddha’s name. He called himself “ooae-Gursah” (unhindered practitioner). He is sometimes called the laughing monk. He had a son while he was a monk, generating intense controversy that continues today.

MacGregor said Wonhyo’s philosophy centered on oneness or Ekayana, the interrelatedness of everything in the universe. Legend has it that this view arose from an even that took place while he was attempting to travel to China. That event is the focus of the pilgrimage.

“He still has a tremendous appeal on a personal level as well as through his writings,” said MacGregor. “In fact, I would say his he is better known today for his actions – the stories that are told about him – than for his teachings.”

One of the stories is about his enlightenment. To reach China, Wonhyo journeyed with his friend Uisang across the Korean Peninsula to the port of Danjugye, a city no longer in existence near-present-day Incheon. Legend has it that on a dark night a storm drove Wonhyo and Uisang into a cave for shelter near Dangjugye. During the night Wonhyo was overcome with thirst and searched in the dark for something to drink. On the cave floor, he found what he thought to be a gourd filled with cool water and lifting it to his lips drank deeply from its refreshing contents. In the morning when he awoke, he looked for the vessel and was shocked.

The delicious, thirst-quenching water of the previous night was dirty rainwater swarming with maggots that had collected in a rotten skull-cap. He fell to his knees and vomited and experienced deep inner enlightenment. He realized that truth is created by the mind.

MacGregor said the Wonhyo Trail enthusiasts had made two pilgrimages. They made a film of the second pilgrimage. The ceremony at the end of the trips at Wonhyo’s cave involved drinking clean water from containers to emulate Wonhyo’s actions more than 1,300 years ago. The film can be seen at the website in the He said the pilgrimages were the first real attempt to emulate Wonhyo’s journey in 1,300 years. “Our hope is that the trail will develop and grow into a Korean version of Spain’s famous Camino de Santiago, offering pilgrims an opportunity to explore themselves as they travel by foot across the Korean peninsula,” he said.

“Our pilgrimage took us 500 kilometers on tracks and unknown by-ways, while leading us to mountain monasteries. We spent many hours with the monks who inhabit the monasteries, talking to them about their experiences, enlightenment and true happiness. It was a unique experience and I hope many people will be able to experience it,” he said.

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Tony MacGregor describes his life in Asia as like “wandering without a map.” He spent three happy years in Seoul, mostly editing at the Korea Times and Yonhap before leaving to study Buddhism at Mahachula University in Bangkok. He has spent much of his working life in journalism (columnist, newspaper and magazine editor and reporter, radio reporter, TV host).

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Looking at the Korean Uni Experience after 12 Years in the U.S.

Three Wise Monkeys - Sat, 12/13/2014 - 06:22

By Jun Won Lee

How you look at it is pretty much how you’ll see it–Rasheed Ogunlaru

Cheonggye Stream, central Seoul, 1950s and now.

Many of my American friends ask me about daily life in Korea, a place that has gone from one of the poorest countries in the world to the most dynamic over the past 50 years. Likewise, many people in Korea wonder what the difference is between Korean university life and the one in the States. Hence, I have decided to provide a deeper insight of Korea, as someone who left Korea at the age of 7, spent 12 years attending school in the States and returned to attend university in Seoul.

Before I entered the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, I tried to find people online and offline who are in the same situation as I am, but it was quite difficult. And sometimes, I felt the regret of sacrificing my twelve years of education in the U.S. to come here to Korea. In fact, my friends in the States always told me to stay and continue my education there. Some of them have even hurt my feelings by telling me to go anywhere in the world except Korea, because of the harsh alcohol culture.

Regardless, I cannot give a straight black and white answer. Some of their statements might be true, but most of them were from people who have never experienced Korea, and in order to find out if these negative statements were true, I came to experience it for myself. Although I have found the alcohol part to be partially true, I find Korean culture to be fine, a mixed feeling of both good and bad. Korea is just like any other country around the world. The only thing that I found noticeably different was the culture. Socializing and studying at a Korean university, I find people wearing shiny hats, expensive watches, wearing colored dresses (females), and more. Although it is not a requirement to be a fashion-guy, it is one way to attract other students in Korea. I know some American friends at my school who get ‘secretly’ cursed by other people around them for the way they dress. This is one way to notice that you are not following the standards of the school.

Korean university hipsters.

One thing that foreigners are jealous of who study in America is that the students are individualistic. Nobody really cares about how you wear your clothes or what you do as long as it does not offend the other person. Whereas in Korea, it is important to consider other people as one part of you. So, to all foreigners or Korean Americans in Korea, I do not recommend you wear pajamas, and bring a huge backpack filled with five books to the classroom. Your Korean friends will feel embarrassed to talk to you, although they may never tell you they do. Even if they don’t feel that way, Koreans want to interact with people who have the same attitude, fashion, and possibly, thoughts. It really depends on the person, because I actually met one female student majoring in mass communications who dreamed of having a boyfriend who wears casual clothes and just lives a casual American life–but I find this case to be rare.

Does this necessarily mean that Korea is bad, and that you are restricted from making your own social decisions? Definitely not, but I am saying that you should change yourself in order to join the “Korean bubble.” And make sure not to get the wrong intention without following these steps. Some think that they can show off their English in order to get more attention from other students. That is not necessarily false, but you are getting more people for the wrong purpose. In this case, they tend to want you to improve their TOEFL or TOEIC scores by interacting with you in English, but that is not getting mixed into the Korean culture. Instead, you are separating yourself from others, and they are simply calling you for help when they need it. A Korean guy that I met from another university told me not to hang around with other foreigners because, he said, “they will not be your real friends,” which I was a little offended by (and what does “real” mean anyway). Anyhow, you should follow these steps, and focus more on yourself to get a positive view from Koreans.

I advise foreigners to visit Korea, because it is a fantastic country, and if you are in Korea, I think you should hang out with Korean friends more often. This is not just to improve your Korean, but to make connections where you probably will stay for a long time. I know foreigners that are studying in a Korean university after which they want to find a job here.  And that requires knowing people, which is one element to success when it comes to career. My university professor in business told me that he would never have gotten this position without the help of his friend, whom he knows through a personal connection.

Doing the MT, university-style.

You might need to get a hands-on experience here before you heed my words, but the last part that I need to mention is membership training (MT), which takes place in both colleges and Korean companies. The purpose of the membership training is to bond with people whom you will interact with inside the college and company. If you don’t know them, even though you work with them, it can be a little awkward sometimes. So, in order to alleviate that, they have created the membership training. Plus, it’s a good way to know about the organization before you actually begin. In college, you first join the club, and then, you get a notice from the leader of that particular club to participate in the training, where you will visit the countryside of Korea, and play around inside a small pub or some random reserved space.

One thing that might scare you, though, is what you might actually do during the membership training (MT). When you hear the word “training,” you might think that you are going to actually learn about the program by doing activities to get more information, and to get used to the company or the things that you will be doing inside the university club or classroom. Unfortunately, that is not what happens. You can simply think of it as a Korean party, where you drink a ton of alcohol and play games using the beer and/or soju. In terms of days, it depends on the type of club you join at your school, and the type of company that you work in. However, it tends be around one to two days. So, to all new members of Korea, I hope that you learn the games before you actually go to the MT. Don’t be scared though, because they will kindly teach you if you don’t understand, and if you cannot play the game at all, they will kindly ask you to wait until the next game, which won’t take that much time. Some of the games  you must know are things like “369,” where you will clap your hands whenever the end digit of the number starts with three, six, or nine, or “Baskin Robbins 31″ where each person can count up to three numbers starting from 1, and whoever calls the number “31″ at the end of the game has to drink, or the “Subway Station” game where a certain subway line is chosen and participants must name stations on that line; anyone who can’t must drink.

I often think about the length of time one spends in college as it seems short, but at the end of the day, it is all up to you. It is really how you look at it and what you make of it, and I am doing all that I can to make my college life effective and educational. Drinking alcohol, I believe, is one cultural behavior you must learn before you join a Korean company, or work under a Korean boss. In addition, recognizing the messages your fashion style sends, knowing the potential benefits and pitfalls of certain types of relationships, preparing yourself for Korean “bonding” and, overall, keeping your mind open in a different culture will serve your adaptation well.

Born in Korea, Jun Won Lee moved to the U.S. when he was 7 and attended 12 years of school before retuning to attend Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. He is a sophomore.

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Writing Against the Establishment’s Grain–A Conversation with Bae Su-ah

Three Wise Monkeys - Sat, 12/13/2014 - 06:09

By Blackberry Finn

Self-creation, experimentation, rejection of tradition and popular mass opinions and behaviors, even humanist philosophical positions—such make an individualist. Korean writer Bae Su-ah has stood for 20 years as an unrepentant individualist in a deeply nationalist and groupist literary establishment, in which conservative social systems–governmental, educational, familial, marital–support and suffuse what writers think and produce. Bae shuns conformity, is a self-learner, openly professes a hatred of groups, and rarely installs Korea and Korean culture as an explicit feature in her novels, preferring imaginary and foreign lands and languages as experienced and registered by her self.  Her writing is quirky and hybrid, and it is exciting that her work, after 20 years of writing for Korean readers, is beginning to reach foreign readers through translation.

Early critics called her “escapist,” but that’s just on the surface. While her head seems to be “in the clouds,” her feet are planted solidly “on the ground.” With a keen eye, Bae observes life, humanity, and society and casts the problems deftly in self-contained quasi-fantasy worlds. Für Elise, Amelie’s Pastel Drawings, Indian Red Roof, Princess Anna, Hill of The Cold Star are some of the “exotic,” fairy tale-like titles by which readers first came to know Bae Suah in the early 1990s.  But at the heart of her stories, we meet women struggling to survive in shattered families, coping with chauvinistic boyfriends, who relieve stress with food and daydreaming, who suffer from low self-esteem. Many of these life problems are rooted in the systems that she rejects.

Bae writes because she cares. But the tension between her individuality/aloofness from social and political structures, and her deep concern for individuality and self-respect amidst these structures has, perhaps not unsurprisingly, gotten her into hot water (not to say that, as a staunch individualist, it bothers her). In the year 2000, her essay “Two Packs of Marlboros and Three Bottles of Heineken” appearing in the Hangyeoreh 21, drew the ire of some readers. Appearing after the election, the essay served up a wry portrait of a disaffected 30-something voter:  

 I’ve never boasted of my political apathy. I know voting’s a good thing if you can do it. Then why is it, for some reason, whenever voting day rolls around, a friend comes to visit, or I end up going to see a good movie, or I have to give the dog a bath? Well, I thought this time I should vote, no matter what.     

First, I looked at a list of candidates black-listed by a citizen’s group to see if anyone was running in my area. Fortunately, there was no one. One of the reasons for voting, gone.  I checked to see if there were any new candidates in their 30s. Unfortunately, none. Another reason for my having to vote, gone. Finally, I looked to see if there were any good-looking people like Kennedy, but of course, there weren’t. . . . The smiling candidates looked greasy, the old ones looked scary. These people, if any of them were elected (it’s the same now, of course) had nothing in common with me. I figured I’d been worrying about nothing. On election day, I got up at dawn, went to my job at the company, and worked all day.  [excerpt]

The essay, read without a sense of irony, sparked a small wave of public fury. A professor of media studies wrote that the essay “left him out of breath,” adding that such “irresponsibility” was indeed “rare for a writer.” Another commenter lambasted the Hangyeoreh for running a meaningless personal anecdote in its “public forum” column, saying that it left him feeling “most unpleasant”. But other readers, seeing beneath the façade of Bae’s aloofness, caught on that it was a political statement, or rather a “parody,” a sharp indictment of a rotten political system that invites voter apathy. One enlightened commenter, begging the public to read the essay as a political critique rather than at face value, assured readers, and rightly, that  “[beneath the surface,] . . . there’s politicality hidden in Bae Su-ah.”

Because she has been, and remains, something of a controversial figure in her home country, and also because her work is now beginning to appear in English translation (read an extended excerpt here), I decided to interview Bae for The Three Wise Monkeys to discuss her views on literature, politics, and her creative work.


F: Korean literature in the 1990s was a kind of renaissance, a flowering of new voices, especially women’s and gay voices, after decades of Korean writers following the prescribed “duties” and “roles” assigned them by society under the dictatorial regimes of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  It was a heady time. Liberality in literature and politics was fresh, exciting …. You made your literary debut at the beginning of this radical break with the past. In an essay written in 2000 entitled “An Excuse for My Texts” you wrote “Literature didn’t exist…before the 1990s.”  I take it that you meant this in both the chronological and “substantial” sense. … The characters in your short stories of the 1990s were developed around imaginative, “exotic” themes and images that were unlike anything seen before in Korean literature.

Well, let’s begin with the question: To what extent do you see your work as a reaction to 80s literature?

Bae: What you say is a reasonable assumption from the standpoint of a critic. That was what it was like in 1993 when I debuted as a writer. It’s true that for me no literature existed before the 1990s. Before writing my first short story, I didn’t read literature avidly. Probably more accurately, I didn’t like Korean literature. Before the 90s, I read world literary classics, and novels translated into Korean. That was all. At first, I was taken aback at criticisms saying that my literature was a resistance to the 80s literature. That’s because I didn’t know much about 80s writing and so had no intention of contesting or resisting it. Perhaps during the 1980s, when I was in college, I thought Korean literature was really uninteresting and devoid of charm, so I stayed clear of it. I think it’s correct to read my early works as a reaction to the realism and political movement literature of the past. But it wasn’t contrived that way by my individual will. The trend of the time demanded personal individualism. It just so happens that it was the time when I finished my first short story and sent it to a magazine.                       

F:  [That was a haunting short story called “A Dark Room in 1988”.] … In your first full-length novel in 1995, Rhapsody in Blue, you “rhapsodically” wrote about failed family and romantic relationships from the perspective of an unstable teenage girl who is passive, begs sympathy from others, a girl “trying to dance on a rope”. The problems of young girls at home, school, and in romantic relationships, are a staple of your early work. While your works express deep sympathy for girls and women alienated from all sorts of systems (marriage, family, school), at the same time, they’re often very critical of male power and the “male mind.”  In this sense, your literature has always possessed a strong feminist consciousness, yes?

Also, did your personal experiences and those of your friends influence your literary themes and style?

Bae: I and other women writers from my time period often liked to write characters based in the vantage points of “women” in Korea. Some female critics have read my works from that angle.

In my early works, I enjoyed choosing “unstable women” as characters: a young girl who leaves her parents and is placed in foster care, a daughter unloved by her family, a young woman without a job, a woman jilted by her lover, a woman who’s just ended an unhappy marriage but who has no alternatives available to her, a woman with no knowledge about her future, etcetera. I was very interested in these sorts of lives. They stimulated my emotions and interest as a writer. I liked stories about these women. But does my being a female writer, and my preference for characters who are social victims, make me a feminist? I don’t think so. Instability in life is something I dealt with all throughout my formative and adolescent years, and I was compelled to write about it. That’s all.                                          

The characters in my recent novels differ a little from those of my early works. They’re still women, but my recent characters often are on a voyage, and experience linguistic confusion in foreign countries and have difficulty in articulating their thoughts. Expressed critically, these works can be said to cross back and forth between the boundaries of language and existence. That perspective, however, is strictly limited to the subject matter, and is rather abstract in its interpretation. What I wish to do is not cross boundaries but to be wholly oblivious to them. Why I like dealing with travelers in my stories is because traveling is a good way for me to experience impacts from the world. My characters are unmarried and in many cases, live unstable economic lives as freelancers. But they feel they’re free and are always involved in love affairs. There’s no call for them to “decide” to cross a boundary. They don’t strive to change the world and they don’t believe that they can change other people’s minds, no feeling they must cross a boundary nor any desire to do so. While they are, in fact, surrounded by boundaries, they’re not conscious of them, strangely enough. Under some conditions, they don’t have any boundaries. I’m interested in these people, these sorts of lives. But most criticisms interpret my stories as struggles or the will to cross boundaries. I’m guessing that the above is one of the reasons why my early stories were read as feminist.                                       

F: Well then, what about your topicalization of social problems? More recent works from the 2000s deal with broader social issues like poverty (Sunday at the Sukiyaki Restaurant), gender (The Essayist’s Desk), and the educational system (The Self-Learner).  In your essay “An Excuse for My Texts,” mentioned earlier, you also wrote, “I fear being in a position where I can influence other people in even the smallest way, or being in a power relationship.” Do you still feel that fear? What occasioned your coming to deal with more politicized themes (if you agree with that premise)?

Bae: Sunday at the Sukiyaki Restaurant, The Essayist’s Desk, and The Self-Learner, are comparatively less representative of my style. As you point out, those can be read as my most strongly political novels. I should explain. For example, I may (as is my habit) write about the inescapable “instability of life,” or perform a solitary serenade of sadness, but behind it all, forever looms the portrait of the dictator. That portrait looms behind the public buses running down the streets. To me, such a scene belongs to the grotesque. Politics, society, customs, human relations- from the standpoint of literature, these are all grotesque. It’s a different language from literature.

What I fear is the public power to instantaneously substitute the grotesqueness described by the author into political language. Because the inescapable instability is the dictator. That’s what my books are about. Of course, it’s the reader’s right to interpret the book as he or she likes. And that’s what I fear.  I don’t want to be like a philosophy teacher just because I write books. I don’t know what good and evil are, neither do I really know what the concepts of “the human,” or “ethics,” or “the future,” or “happiness” are, neither do I believe in them. I don’t know anything. As a writer, I can’t say anything about human problems with certainty. It’s closer to say I don’t want to know them with any certainty. I don’t know anything. I don’t want to know anything. Because knowing, to me, is tedious. I like to observe life without intervening, to make assumptions, to imagine, and to fictionalize.                         

F: Political writing means “taking on the mantle” of so many burdens extraneous to the process of pure creative writing. Looking at your works chronologically, my subjective impression was that your more politicized work in the 2000s represented a kind of Ubergang into a more socially committed phase of writing, compared to the 1990s. I find an enormous positivity in the moments of fierce resistance in Bae Su-ah’s literature. But the “fearful” aspect of your thought jibes squarely with your rejection of “systems” in your writing. It’s important, I think, that readers understand this point about your work.

Bae:  I understand your concern. My response just now, of course, was as a writer. I meant that for my works, political problems do not carry greater importance than other themes. The novels you mentioned deal with social issues, it’s true. But they don’t say anything more about my literature than the other works. Of course, I can’t say that they’re not my works.

Feminism, poverty, and gender are problems that my characters possess. But at the same time, those issues are often appropriated into the framework of “general literary readings.” That’s something I caution against as a writer.

I’m not at all indifferent to social issues. The main reason I’m interested in social issues is because they’re fertile ground for creative writing. Even if I call my literature a literature of my personal dreams or fantasy literature, I believe that these grew and took shape in the realities of the society in which I and my readers live. Social problems are caused by human beings, and human beings are the characters in my novels.

But the resolving of social problems, social justice, social reform, and so on, are different notions. They’re not my direct concern. Nor do I think they impact my literary creations. That’s because I don’t think political methods lead to the betterment of society. I don’t want to write novels describing reality just “as it is” like naturalistic writers. I enjoy observing people.

F: Thinking back to the 1990s, it’s really what set you apart from the Korean women writers who monopolized most of the critical spotlight. Here, I’m thinking of Shin Gyeong-suk, Gong Ji-yeong, and Gim In-suk, who were writing within and about family, marriage, labor conditions under the sponsorship of Changbi Publishers–the powerful “old-boys” from the dictatorial era. While producing much good work, they did not break radically from the 1980s. But Bae Su-ah always wrote “from without.” It’s what made you unique, and imbued your works with a sense of freedom so fresh and appealing at the time. As I recall, that freedom bothered senior critics (mostly university professors). They saw you, Baek Min-seok, Jang Jeong-il, and other highly individualist writers as bearers of anomie and panic, and called your literature a “literature of crisis.” They were adverse to the postmodern break from the past you represented. Your literature is highly unique and differs markedly from the style of other Korean writers, so your works have been loved by readers. Can you make any additional comment on why you think that is?

Bae: Well, your question contains a lot of pretexts…. it’s a truly difficult question. That my literature differs from other Korean authors, whether my works are loved by readers for that reason, I don’t really know about that.

You know German, so you’ll understand the concept of Eigensinn, which is the sole dynamic underlying my life and writing.

F: In English, “self-will”, “stubbornness.”

Bae: I think it may result from this. From the point of view of Koreans, my writing may seem too individualistic, not sufficiently pursuing popular consensus. Koreans like emotional consensus. In reality, they live faithful to their desires, but when putting forth some cause, they always give importance to that value. It’s the same in the literature. So, in the German-English dictionary, Eigensinn is rendered as “gojip” (고집). I think that’s an inappropriate translation. “Strong individuality” seems better.

F: From all that you’ve described, the title of your novel Self-Learner surely points toward something profound about you. What does the concept of “self-learning” mean to you?

Bae: I never learned anything in school. I didn’t pay attention during class, and was just absorbed in my imaginings. It was like that from kindergarten through university. Thus, all that I have inside me now is the result of self-study. Reading, thinking, experience, mistakes, they were all self-acquired.

F: Your choice to study German is also quite unusual for a Korean writer. …Speaking of German, in Self-Learner and in The Essayist’s Desk, you wrote about the difficulties of studying a foreign language, yet in the same year you published your Korean translation of Jakob Hein’s Mein erstes T-shirt. Hain criticizes the negative effects of education on students in the GDR during the 70s and 80s. It seems some parallel exists between Hain’s novel and your personal experience as a student in Korea. How did you come to translate the novel?

Bae: I’m embarrassed to confess it (laughs) but the selection of Hain’s book as my first novel to translate wasn’t so much its impression on me, as the book’s comparative simplicity for translation. I hadn’t been studying German that long and my abilities were still quite limited. It’s still hard. Somebody recommended the book to me, saying it was interesting. That’s how I came to read it. Germany was also once a divided country like Korea, and I thought the stories about being young in East Germany would be interesting for Korean readers.

F:  How about your more recent translations of Bernhard’s Wittgensteins Neffe and Kafka’s Ein Traum?

Bae: Wittgensteins Neffe I translated at the request of the publisher. I was happy to do it because I like Bernhard’s writing. I read Ein Traum for the first time in Germany and really liked it, so I sent a proposal to Workshop Publishers and it fit perfectly with their Propositions Series.  

F: Many think you moved to Germany. Did you?

Bae: Oh, I never moved to Germany. I live in Korea. My long sojourn in Germany was 11 months between 2001 and 2002. I went because I quit the company where I was working and wanted to become a full-time writer. I went to Germany and ended up, coincidentally, studying the language. I think this was one of the great fortunes of my life. Because I could become intimately acquainted with German literature. Of course I’ve gone back many times, but for just short stays of 2-3 weeks.  

F:  That’s a good segue into a question I’ve always wanted to ask you since reading your novel The Essayist’s Desk. Professor Im Ok-heui described the intentional gender ambiguity in Essayist as “queer.” Your novel Ivanna from 2002 also shared a similar gender ambiguity. Homosexuality appears as a theme or motif in your short stories Time in Gray, the Hyundae Munhak Prize-winning In the Direction of Marzahn, and A Letter from Yanggon. The straightforward and non-prejudicial manner in which you include themes of same-sex sexuality and gender fluidity marks another point in which you depart from other mainstream Korean writers. Can you say something about the background to Essayist? How did you come to write a “romance” (?) free of gender categories? And now, 10 years later, can you say if any connection exists between the title Ivanna and the Korean word for “gay,” ivan (iban)?

Bae: The Korean spelling of the title is Ibana (이바나), but the name in the original language is Ibanna/Ivanna. There was no special reason for choosing that name and there’s no connection to the Korean term ivan. I’ve never thought that the title might be interpreted that way. That’s quite clever.

Essayist was envisioned while I was in Germany. I think my novels are primarily love stories, though I don’t know how much my readers would agree with that. One day I was deeply inspired and fell in love. The person was my German teacher. It’s a common enough occurrence. We can easily fall in love with an excellent teacher. But as it happens, that German teacher wasn’t a man. But the novel describes their love very platonically. That’s why I think Essayist is half-success and half-failure. I lacked the courage to go forward, and my feelings were too much like those of a young girl in middle school.

But the situation wouldn’t have been much different even if that German teacher had been a male. And so the novel doesn’t have any same-sex code.   

F: Your thoughts on gay rights? Support or no?

Bae: I don’t particularly “support” gay rights. That’s because it’s such a “no-brainer.” If one day I were to fall in love with a woman, I’d have no qualms, I would pursue it. If circumstances called for it, I’d tell all my friends. That wouldn’t be a problem for me at all. I think the response of my friends in that case would be based not so much in their values with respect to homosexuality but in their faith and trust in me. I just can’t understand why people make an issue out of others’ sexual orientation. Furthermore, I can’t understand why others worry about people problematizing their own sexual orientation. It’s the same for all modes of private life, not only sexual orientation. Just as there’s no reason for me to come forward and oppose another person’s love, there’s no reason for me to come forward and support it. I haven’t any right to do so. Private life is an individual’s “real” life; and “real” means “all alone.” I understand human rights (related to homosexuality) in the same context.                  

F:  I asked only because you have topicalized same-sex attraction in your works, and because readers encountering those themes may be curious about your thoughts on the issue. For some of us, gay rights and building a political platform is an “in your face” business, but as you said earlier, this can constitute a different language from literature, especially pure literature. You want to be read as Bae Su-ah, not as a feminist, or queer supporter, etc. That marks you as an individualist.  The Essayist’s Desk will be coming out in English translation soon. Isn’t that right?

Bae:  Yes, it’s been translated into English. The translator Deborah Smith has completed it and negotiations are underway with publishers.   

F: Which Korean or foreign writers do you enjoy reading?

Bae: My favorite author is [W.G.] Sebald. I love all his books. I truly love him. Currently I’m reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I like Pynchon’s other novels. I still can’t say whether I’ll like this one or not. I just started it. I also like J.M. Coetzee and Philip Roth. When I’m taking a break from work, I sometimes read Geoff Dyer’s essays. They’re interesting.            

F: I’d like to ask you about the foreign language translations of your works, to date mostly in English. Your devoted fans are hoping for a Bae-boom. (laughs) Time in Gray has been translated, and, I believe, also your early short story Highway with Green Apples (with that disturbing pair of German kitchen scissors). Your early novel Cheolsu and The Essayist’s Desk– also forthcoming in English. Have you been satisfied with the results? Which of your works would you most like to see translated into English or another foreign language?

Bae: I haven’t read the translation of Cheolsu. I hope to read it when it comes out. I read Time in Gray, but my English ability isn’t strong enough to evaluate the translation. Speaking just from my feeling, I think there are no problems with it. I think when translating, the translator must be given a lot of freedom. The translation has to fit into the environment of the target language. When necessary, the expressions can be revised. I think translations that stick too closely to every Korean word and don’t move forward are not good translations. It’s something I’ve come to feel in the process of translating works myself.

When Amazon Crossings in the U.S. asked me to recommend some of my works for translation, I chose Cheolsu because it was on the Korean Literature Translation Institute’s list of recommended titles. I also recommended The Unknown Night and Day. I’d like to see it translated. Cheolsu has a pretty clear storyline. Personally, I like Northern Living Room and Low Hills of Seoul, but will they translate well into English? I’m also a little suspicious as to whether foreign readers would want to read Third World novels like those in Korea.

F: Your works stand apart from those of your contemporaries in Korea for their postmodern quality, and should be of interest to foreign readers. Shin Gyeong-suk is a touching writer, and she had some success in the West with Please Take Care of Mom; but as mentioned, she and most other Korean writers are tied up with patriarchal and national “systems,” marriage, family, education, economic, and traditional motherhood. They write in the shadow of the portrait of the dictator. (laughs) Bae Su-ah, on the other hand, deconstructs and rejects these, creates her own unique literary worlds based in her individuality. Therein lay your great appeal, in my view, and I think other foreign readers will agree.       

Bae: Well, I’ll say this: The place where I exist as a writer (not as a person) doesn’t “belong” anywhere. Literature can be seen as an act undertaken for social solidarity; but to me, literature is just “me alone.” And the more I write, the stronger that feeling grows. 

F: Finally, what literary creations are you currently envisioning?

Bae: I just sent a collection of travel essays to my publisher. It’s called One Week with a Sleeping Man and is about my travels in Los Angeles. I never imagined my first travel essays would be about L.A. rather than Germany. I’ve often been asked to write some travel essays about Berlin. But I’ve never been able to finish them. I hope to finish them sometime next year…During the winter, I’ll be hard at work translating. Then in the spring, I’ll try my hand again at some love stories.  

F: Thank you.


(Translated by interviewer.)

Blackberry Finn is a researcher at Seoul National University.

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