From 27 - 29th of April I attended a conference on Jeju Island focussed on Literary Resistance and Solidarity in East Asia. With poets from Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and Korea the theme was the place of literature in the context of heightened state power and repression. The location - Jeju - was no accident. It was here that in 1948 30,000 people were slaughtered by South Korean forces (aided and abetted in every possible way by the "soft power" of the American military). Labelled a 'red island' by the American authorities, every islander was punished for a few partisans in their midst. I will publish more writing on this conference very soon. For now, I will briefly describe a moment of inspiration.
On the final day of the conference after planting a tree from Halla mountain at the 4.3 Peace Museum - which each writer's group covered with soil and water from every part of Korea, and hung a personal message on (see picture above) - we visited the last hideout of Lee Deok Gu, a communist partisan who left this location in 1949, before he was discovered by the South Korean police and assassinated. The site was strewn not only with the remains of his hideout, but the cooking pots and rice dishes in which the partisans had presumably eaten their final meal.
We performed the traditional Chesa ceremony for Doek Gu at this point, with hungry crows circling overhead (you can hear them quite clearly towards the end of the following clip).
It was also here that some excellent musicians performed the song of the partisans (which reminds me of the Italian "Bella Ciao") "The Revolutionary Spirit is Alive". The fantastic singer - amid some tears in the crowd - sang about the ideals of resistance outliving the death of individuals. Incidentally, this was a song played at the funeral of Kim Il Sung, also a famous rebel fighter, who was to become the first leader of North Korea. Given that the previous day we had talked in detail about the word "빨갱이" (a derogatory term literally meaning "red") as a "mechanism" for keeping power in the hands of conservative forces, and further repressing "the truth" of what happened in the war, it seemed a perfect - and deliberately beautiful - moment. This song doesn't actually respect any kind of linguistic division. It reaches beyond state borders and spoke to us there in the forest as a song of resistance above all else. The singers mournful wail called for an engagement with the reality of what it means to fight against the state whether located in the North or in the South. This wail was both protest and remembrance. It may have been on Jeju Island for this event, but it could of been anywhere else. Where "the wounds are untended and the voices are confused", as George Oppen wrote so well in 1968, "there is the head of the moving column". That wail can be heard at the fences of the open air prison that is Gaza today. It can be heard anywhere people are suffering from a surfeit of power that wishes to silence them. Equally, it can never be explained away by recourse to crude terminology instituted by a state that seeks to dehumanize and then ultimately erase those speaking out.
In South Korea history is something always returning to haunt the populace. The location of Jeju island means this place is always looked at in terms of the possibilities for projecting state power rather than being somewhere people actually live. This was evident for me watching local news at my hotel, where resistance continues to an American military base forced on the people of Gangjeong Village. This base was originally proposed by the first South Korean president, and in typical pattern has only now achieved physical form. Like an apparition from a torturous past, promising more of the same, it is simply more military hardware to encircle (an already encircled) China. Please see the following link to the movie Ghosts of Jeju, bearing in mind that even though the base is now built resistance is ongoing.