The Current State of South Korea’s Labor Poetry

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byKang Gye-Sook

The 1980s, when the labor movement was at its most active in South Korea, was also the most active period for the creation of labor poetry. The poetry of this time, represented mainly by Park Nohae and Baek Mu-san, denounced the wretched conditions of the workplace, depicted the joys, sorrows and sufferings of the workers, and expressed the contradictions and consciousness of class struggle. However, in the 1990s, the globalization of capitalism brought about great changes in Korean society, and as a result, the labor movement and labor literature, which had maintained a strong sense of struggle, began to decline. Since the start of the 2000s, it is difficult to find any continuation of the labor poetry of the past in Korean literature. However, the lives of workers driven into extreme situations continue throughout the world, and South Korea is no exception. This is why Song Kyung-dong’s poetry attracts attention. He belongs to the working class, and writes poems about the reality he himself has experienced as a factory worker. He also knows that his poetry is historically contiguous with the poetry of the past while, at the same time, occupying a different position due to changes in society.

Insofar as his poetry portrays a reality in which workers’ due demands for their rights are ignored and concealed so that they are forced to make extreme choices, Song is one with the poets of the previous generation. That the reality of the working class in the capitalist system has not changed is the poet’s awareness of the times and his view of the world. But Song’s poetry does not cry out that these problems must be solved by physical struggle, inspired by class consciousness. He distinguishes between the layers of problems facing workers. For example, he captures acutely the problems neglected by the ideology of growth and development, which still ravages society on all sides, such as the loss of human rights, the lack of justice, the limitations and unfairness of state power, the illegality of global corporations, increasing employment insecurity and an expanding social underclass, the resulting generational transmission of poverty, and the dark side of polarization. And he tries to express all of this vividly through his own personal experiences. His poetry says that if there is a reality that has to be fought, it appears before us with various faces. Perhaps this is an important feature that distinguishes Song’s poetry from the labor poetry of the past.

As the title suggests, “I’m not a Korean,” his third poetry collection, published in 2016, expresses the reality of workers who, while belonging to the community, cannot avoid living as social outcasts or Others. “The Air Club,” “The Day I Learned a Lesson,” “The Sea’s Interrogation Room,” “Our Christmas,” and “99% Versus 1%” are among the most significant poems in this volume. “The Air Club” refers to the “high altitude struggle,” a major term in the history of the South Korean labor movement. The “high altitude struggle” was the struggle of labor unionists who decided to climb to the top of huge cranes and stage unlimited fasting sit-ins as an ultimate way of making their situation known. This poem takes as its background the desperation of workers who can find no way of living other than to choose death as a possible outcome. Actually, the characters engaged in this struggle portray their experiences humorously in dialogue interspersed with jokes and wit. In this way their hardships are emphasized ironically.

The poem “The Day I Learned a Lesson” plays with the fact that in Korean, the words for “learning” and “anus” have the same pronunciation, though they are spelled differently. It uses the poet’s own voice to show how he comes to realize through physical suffering experienced in the course of a sit-in that true struggle is not an ideological struggle based on theory, but a struggle implemented and practiced in the physical body.

The poem “The Sea’s Interrogation Room” has a rather different tone compared to the other poems. This poem compares the dark sea to an interrogation room in a police station, the sound of raging waves to the questions being asked during an interrogation, so that it stands at the forefront of struggle; on the other hand, it frankly expresses the tension of an individual who longs to escape and forget all such things. That tension brings about human empathy, while the poem’s speaking voice foresees that in spite of difficulties, he will not be able to abandon the path he has chosen in the end.

“Our Christmas” is a poem mourning a worker’s death. It expresses through a series of questions the desperate situation facing irregular workers and limited choices in life, unable as they are to respond except by taking their own lives. “99% Versus 1%,” taking the Occupy Wall Street movement as a motif, is a poem imagining the international consensus and solidarity of workers transcending borders and races in the social polarization caused by the world financial system. Perhaps, in the midst of imagining this, the poet is dreaming of the arrival of a new revolution that has not previously existed. In this way Song’s poems can be considered to be twenty-first century’s protest songs, ceaselessly denouncing the realities of labor here and now in order to achieve a dream of a better world.


Translated by Brother Anthony

Author's Profile

Kang Gye-Sook is a literary critic and professor of Korean literature at Myongji University. She received the Changbi New Critic’s Award in 2002. Her publications include the critical essay collections Mi-eon and The Light of Depression.