The Turbulent Life of a Outsider Literary Intellectual
The most thought-provoking conversation I’ve ever had with writer Bok Geo-il took place at the end of the 1990s. At the time, Korea was under IMF trusteeship, a part of history that Koreans will not soon forget. While Korea was undergoing such a devastating financial crisis, I arranged a roundtable with Bok Geo-il through Munye Joongang, the magazine I was afraid with. He was known as an economic expert and a cosmopolitan in literary circles. Another cosmopolitan writer who was visiting Korea, that is, the late translator Lee Yun-gi, was also in attendance at the roundtable. This turned out to be the very place where Bok Geo-il proposed the infamous “English as the official language in Korea” that led to a riotous debate that exploded among cultural and literary circles. I believe this was the first time that Bok so unguardedly brought up this idea at an official debate (rather than through his writing). Anyone who lived through those times in this country would remember how Bok’s suggestion came as such a tremendous shock. It was not surprising that most intellectuals—except for a small minority of open-minded and liberal-leaning ones—were outraged by this idea that was considered tantamount to giving up national sovereignty, and they passionately denounced this writer with the unusual name. So then, does Bok’s decision to coolly bring up the issue anyway, fully expecting vilification, make him a foolish Don Quixote, or Joan of Arc, a passionate hero who simply wanted to save her country?
by Han Ki
professor of Korean Literature, University of Seoul