I'm Not a Korean

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • bySong Kyung-dong

In my early twenties, when I was just discovering literature, a poet inspired me and helped me break out of my eggshell. She was Nikki Giovanni, the African American woman poet, who wrote:

and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy

- from “Nikki-Rosa”
  in Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment

Dreaming of a world in which such dignity was allowed to all became the path for my writing. For me, a real revolution will be realized when all beings are wondrous with their own truth alone, where all ordinary people, without high or low distinctions, without comparison, are great and dignified in themselves. I reckoned that the “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” that Marx had spoken of in The Communist Manifesto, was no different from that.

I’m glad to be here for the first time in the country of Nikki Giovanni, who gave me inspiration for the way true literature should follow. I’m glad to be in the country where, in May 1886, a general strike aimed at obtaining an eight-hour working day at the Haymarket Square in Chicago was crushed by police gunfire, giving birth to International Workers’ Day on May 1. Ever since my early twenties, I have celebrated my birthday not on September 15 but on May 1, the day of solidarity for workers and peoples all over the world. I remember in 2008, when the female “dispatch” workers at Kiryung Electronics, who were earning just 10 won more than the legal minimum wage in South Korea, protested. They sent people to the US to bring the struggle directly to Sirius Satellite Radio, for whom they were working, and American citizens came to their assistance. I also remember the struggle in 2010 against Cort Guitars, which produced one-third of the world’s guitars, after they tried to lay off workers in South Korea. The protesters brought their struggle to that year’s NAMM show in Anaheim. Tom Morello of the rock group Rage Against the Machine said, “Guitars should not be produced at the cost of workers’ blood and sweat. If multinational capital is trying to exploit labor, the struggle of labor against it should also be done on a multinational level.” Then he dedicated the song “Worldwide Rebel Song” in solidarity with the struggle, for which I’m grateful.

Above all, I’m glad to be here in New York where, in the fall of 2011, faced with the absurdity of 1 percent of multinational financial capital accounting for 50 percent of total social wealth, “We are the 99%” and “Occupy Wall Street” emerged. I was thinking about my “comrades” at Zuccotti Park at that time, as I was on the run from the police for my hand in planning the “Hope Bus” to mobilize temporary workers against layoffs and neoliberalist restructuring in South Korea. The Hope Bus, often compared to the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery against racial discrimination after the arrest of Rosa Parks, carried workers and citizens from all over South Korea on five occasions. They voluntarily organized Hope Buses to join and support workers at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, who were striking in protest of layoffs, including a sit-in on top of a 40-meter-high crane. At the time, my soul was not lonely even though I was shut up in solitary confinement in a tiny prison cell. Some days I was together with the protesters in Zuccotti Park, or in a corner of some Arabian plaza where the Jasmine Revolution was taking place, either marching or shaking my fist against monopolistic conglomerates or against some dictator. The world may seem isolated, but the world’s dreamers are all one.

In early November 2016, we set up a camping village in central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Plaza close to the Blue House to demand President Park Geun-hye’s ouster. In a speech there, I dreamed that our camp might expand “like Zuccotti Park with its dream of ‘99% against 1%’ which occupied Wall Street in New York, the center of the world’s economy, in September 2011, or like Tabriz Square in Egypt’s Cairo which saw the start of the Arab Spring that same year. Only the direct democracy of workers and common citizens gathered in our squares and streets would be able to properly judge the Park Geun-hye regime and bring Korean society to a new stage of democracy.”

So we’re linked. We’re all connected in opposition to this unjust world, which is constantly trying to isolate people by dividing them into person and person, group and group, poor and rich, powerful and powerless, by borders, by products, by money. It is the task of literature to imagine such organic relationships and a shared world, and constantly restore the truth of buried events and relationships. While we participate together in concrete tasks and struggles against specific injustices and contradictions here and now, we should never stop asking fundamental questions and dreaming of a deeper, more robust “long-lasting future.” This must be the permanent victory and permanent defeat for literature. Not a literature that offers ordinary explanations or difficult commentaries on a world that is already dead and gone; it has to be a literature that often despairs and collapses as it pursues the new language of a world that is yet to come. It has to be a literature that brings together the fruits of despair and hope to create another rare form of life.

To put it briefly, it has to be a literature that dreams seditious dreams going beyond this unjust world in which the total assets of 225 multinational capitalists is more than the total annual income of 2.5 billion of the world’s poor. In which the sales of each of the world’s top 100 conglomerates are greater than the total exports of 120 poor countries, while the amount of speculative financial capital flowing in and out each year is 65 times greater than the total value of goods and services produced by the people of the entire world. It has to be the universal duty of contemporary literature to go beyond this present century of fraud, monopoly, and violence, and to dream again. It has to be a literature that reacts more sensitively and shudders before the present day’s barbarism. Literature must rage against the world where in order to achieve monopolistic wealth and privileges, people destroy nature and produce nuclear weapons, where they discriminate against ethnic groups, where they wage wars, where they privatize all public goods and commercialize all areas of value necessary for human life while distorting history to block resistance and revolution and colonizing all areas of the press, publishing, education, and culture.

We need to remember that good literature has always revived and emerged like a miracle on abandoned frontiers or hidden frontlines. We need to remember that the beautiful literary tradition that we must follow has never flourished in the antechambers of dictators, the side rooms of opportunists, or at the overflowing tables of capital. Those are affectations and fallacies that cannot become the target of freedom and that have to avoid mentioning freedom. So long as the misery and suffering of the world has not ended, it is sinful or disrespectful to be too readily discouraged and we should sing as much as possible about the possibility of yet greater hope and social transformation.

Specifically, there seems to be one thing that Korean writers and conscientious American literary people have to do together. That is to overcome the division of the Korean peninsula and unite our efforts for peace. Once again, the United States is not helping. The US, that “monster state,” which since the start of the modern era has been responsible for so many wars and disputes, must reflect deeply on its past imperialistic history. It is a history that it must reject in order for American society to be reformed. Fortunately, summit talks have recently been held between North and South Korea as well as North Korea and the United States. For the first time, there have been promises of a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula to replace the “North Korea-US Armistice Agreement,” together with the lifting of various economic sanctions, an end to large-scale military exercises, the provision of economic support, and other forms of exchange and cooperation. I hope that we can combine forces so that this wave of peace can become an irresistible trend.

Literature is the conviction that “if capitalism armed with imperialism achieved globalization by force, we will attain it with the very old-style conventional weapons of love and compassion.” That literature “will use the palpitating human heart as a detonator and so cover the human world more completely than any nuclear shield.” (From my doggerel poem, “Butterfly Effect.”)


by Song Kyung-dong


*The essays presented here were written for a special event Korean Literature Now hosted as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations on September 15, 2018 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, one of America’s biggest book festivals and the largest free literary event in New York City.


Author's Profile

Song Kyung-dong has authored the poetry collections Sound Sleep, Answering Trivial Questions, and I’m Not a Korean. He has received the Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature and the Cheon Sang-byeong Literary Award. In 2014, he was sentenced to prison for mobilizing what he called the “Hope Bus” movement in which some 200 buses swarmed the site of an industrial protest in a show of solidarity. He is part of the investigative committee examining the blacklisting of artists during the past two administrations in South Korea.