Conscripts of Modernization:
Transformational Variations Drawn from the Korean

by Richard Owens

—for Kara

    There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.
    —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

    I speak of “south” Korea in lowercase to disclaim the legitimacy of
    the superpowers’ artificial division of Korea in 1945.I recognize
    neither two nations nor two peoples on the Korean peninsula.
    —Ahn Seung-Joon, From State to Community:
    Rethinking Korean Modernization


What follows is an eclectic collection of Korean verse and song I translated while working as a medic at an American military clinic in Waegwan, south Korea. From December 1997 through May 2001 I wiled away many nights transcribing and translating these poems and songs, often appealing to others for assistance—Korean soldiers, civilians, university students, and English-speaking expatriates. Most everyone I appealed to delighted in helping me and for that I am grateful.

This is not a work of scholarship but a gesture toward understanding and community. Translating these songs and poems are in part what allowed me to work with and through an awareness of my complicity in the U.S. imperial project on the Korean peninsula. I was there as a U.S. soldier “fighting in the forces that guard my country”—or more accurately the forces that advance the social and economic interests of the ruling elite within my nation of origin. Working through these translations, many of them punctuated with notes concerning their historical and social contexts, became for me a sort of penance. But this was a penance without absolution, without forgiveness. Rather than forgiveness, the work of translation brought understanding.

The notes, quotes and passages from the journals I maintained while in Korea can also be considered part of the larger translation project. Some of them are included here, suggesting that translation is also in many ways a manner of quotation. It is both a selfless gesture toward community and an aggressive act of appropriation. If we turn toward Emerson, writing prior to Walter Benjamin who wanted nothing more than to write a work composed of nothing but quotes, we find in “Quotation and Originality” the following statement:

    All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote…. None escapes it. The originals are not original.

If we quote we can only quote what is prior, what came before us, what is past. The past—or representations of the past—are everywhere present. The past is carried into the present by means of quoting and translation. And this gathering of quotes and translations, of translation as quote, has less to do with the work in translation than with the work of translation—the quote passed from one language through another, from one body through another, from one text through another, from one culture through another. It is at one and the same time an act of transmission and also an act of faith. And it is through such an act of faith that I have attempted to understand my complicity in a project that has culturally and economically subordinated Korea to the U.S. for over fifty years.


HONG NAN PA—“Spring In My Hometown”

Hong Nan Pa—musician and nationalist. The old man and I worked on the song through the night, passing the hours while on call at the clinic. He sang this as a child. I haven’t yet finished working it, tweaking it, transforming it into English. Perhaps it can remain as is, an unfinished draft, in his hand and mine, a collaborative effort, the work always unfinished, always open, always with room for others to sing in whatever tongue they please.


Rexroth—via Dryden—believes it is an act of sympathy. This. Translation. He asserts with usual unswerving force that Hart Crane’s “Voyages” is “by far the best transmission of Rimbaud into English that exists—” Something of barbarism in the manner of all transmission, in all sympathy when sympathy involves “the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of the utterance to one’s own utterance.”  


February 6, 1999. The world at once: large in possibility; smaller in transmission—becomes uncertain….


December 31, 1999. Palestinians will release 2000 doves at midnight. There have been no reported injuries at Times Square. Part of the festivities taking place in Times Square involves skits performed to celebrate each nation of the world as New Year arrives in those nations. & in Korea something other than “Auld Lange Syne,” a popular holiday folk song sung by children in celebration of the Lunar New Year:

까치               까치
설날은  어저께고요
우리               우리
설날은  오늘이래요

magpie           magpie
yesterday yr new year
today                today
our new year our new year

Global harmony. Global hegemony. In Seoul celebrations commenced in Chong-No and at the eastern gate of the city. Dance. Fireworks. Food. Theater. All of this coupled with technology, with technological advancement. One skit performed in Seoul in celebration of the New Year was titled “DMZ 2000.” Men and Women clad in costumes—all of them appearing like characters out of a sci-fi dystopia film—carried a large effigy, a skeleton, while other performers flailed wildly around the stage, some throwing grenades, firing weapons, weeping, mourning, dying. All of it chilling.

Today there is none of the pre-millennium anxiety that characterized the past few months leading up to this moment, this day, New Year’s Eve, eve of the millennium. The western calendar is an arbitrary construct grossly out of accord with Earth coming & going. Technology then constructed around that which is grossly out of accord. & in knowing technology is out of accord— this to say, there be bases other than ten.


Just as Hart Crane & Harry Crosby have been held high as Hamlet-like figures emblematic of the modern period—their premature departures marking the end of the modern period—the early death of modernist poet Yi Sang marks perhaps the final stage in what Ngugi wa Thiong’o has called the colonization of the imagination. This from Ogamdo, Portrait of the Five Senses, Yi Sang approaching identity & imagination under a colonial roof—








The Looking Glass

No sound in the mirror. No
world quiet or still as that.

Tho this I in the mirror—he’s
an ear too; two miserable ears

that don’t understand my words.
& this I in the mirror—he left

handed & unable to shake
a hand. Because of the mirror

I can’t touch the I in the mirror.
How could I touch the I in

the mirror without a mirror. I
don’t have the mirror now but

that I in the mirror—he’s
always there. I’m not sure.

Perhaps the I in the mirror
is engaged in a solitary

endeavor. That I in the mirror
is nothing like the real I but

we’re an awful lot alike. Its
such a shame I can’t trust or

even examine the I in the mirror.

Much of Yi Sang’s work balances itself precariously on an awareness of Cocteau’s mirror poems—though there’s something in the idea of a mirror which replicates to scale the experience of smacking a Korean head against a Japanese ceiling—later, an American ceiling. Again, Yi Sang:


    벌판한복판에꽃나무하나가있소. 근처에는꽃나무가하나도없소. 꽃나무는제가생각하는꽃나무를열심으로생각하는것처럼열심으로꽃을 피워가지고섰소. 꽃나무는제가생각하는꽃 나무에게갈수없소. 나는막달아났소. 한꽃나무를위하여그러는것처럼나는참그런이상스러 운흉내를내었소.

    Flower Tree

    There—a flower tree in the center of a field. The flower tree thinks about the flower tree with enthusiasm. The flower tree stands blossoming with enthusiasm as if the flower tree thinks about itself with enthusiasm. There is an idea of the flower tree which the flower tree cannot come close to. I ran wildly away. It’s such an odd imitation I perform for the flower tree.

Japan’s annexation & subsequent occupation of Korea in 1910 ended abruptly in 1945 with the surrender of Japan—with the savage, unwarranted bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. 1945 through 1948 marked for Korea a period of allied occupation. The country was arbitrarily divided along the 38th parallel, the region north of that line occupied by the Soviet Union, the region south by the U.S. Indeed, it has often been posited that, once the war in Europe ended & Soviet forces were able to turn their attention to the war in the Pacific, the Truman administration struggled to bring the war in the Pacific to a rapid close—this in order to prevent the Soviet Union from extending their sphere of influence. This issue, among a small handful of others, informed Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Korea, one occupying force was replaced by two, the country irreparably fractured. & through colonization the language gradually turns inward on itself, against itself, the imagination is annexed, occupied.


Writing in 1994, in English, Choi Chungmoo illustrates the way in which language and everyday usage of an idiom specific to a region, a people, a country, can be shaped through a process of cultural occupation:

    A few days before my departure to America, one of my friends at the People’s Arts Council, a group engaged in the oppositional minjung culture movement, casually asked me, “When do you enter (turo gada: to go in) America?” I cringed at this ordinary question…

Choi then provides a footnote which explains:

    The verb to enter is used exclusively for travel to the Unite States. The verb to go is used for traveling to other countries.

Here Kim Min-Gi, “Morning Dew”—a song written in response to the Kwangju massacre, May 1980. Over eight hundred students & activists were killed by military and police forces while engaged in protest—

    긴 밤 지새우고 풀잎마다 맺힌 진주 보다 더 고운 아침 이슬처럼
    내 맘에 설움이 알알이 맺힐 때 아침동산에 올라 작은 미소를 배운다
    태양은 묘지 위에 붉게 떠오르고 한낮에 찌는 더위는 나의 시련일지라
    나 이제 가노라 저 거친 광야에 서러움 모두 버리고 나 이제 가노라

          like morning dew prettier than pearls
          seated thru night on blades of grass
          beads of sorrow form on my soul.

          I make the climb to the morning garden
          to study the ghost of a smile.

            A crimson sun scales the cemetery—
          by midday the heat will be my trial.

          So I go now—tossing all my grief
          into the wilderness. I go—

to cull from the past, from Sijo & Hanshi, from Korea as blossom swinging from a Chinese bough. Barbarism in transmission. Lady Kim of Kum Won—

해맑은 물 좋아라 갈매기 날 때
난간에 기대어 밤을 새는데
강 건너 도란도란 말 소리 들리니
달밝은 이 밤 뉘 집의 뱃머리 길 떠나는가

pure water
so beautiful
when seagulls

the river the
of whispered

whose boat
would leave


She the concubine of Kim Yi-Sang, 19th century statesman, yangban. She was well acquainted with the poet Un Jo, as well as a number of other poets and artists. Throughout her life she expressed regret with having been born a woman.

장막 여니 하늘에 물이 닿있고
열 두 구비 난간에 부는 봄바람
강 너머 복사꽃 가는 실버들
실비에 감싸여 빛이 흐리구나

I opened the curtain.
Water leapt up—
         touch’d the sky.

Spring wind blew
by the balustrade
twelve times curved.

willow & peach blossom
covered in rain—
           dimmed the light.

Considering her relationship to the poet Juk Suh, she wrote: “I would like that in the next life Juk Suh & I were born as men & might then sing peacefully to one another.”

시냇가의 실버들 푸르른 가지
봄 시름 못 이겨 휘늘어지고
꾀꼴꾀꼴 꾀꼬리 슬피 우는데
님과 이별한 이 발길 떨어질 건가

Green willow branches
along the riverbank
won’t weather spring—

they droop;

the oriole’s song is sad

& it’s hard lifting my feet
off the ground
           on walking away

She was said to have dressed in men’s clothing, often to escape from her husband’s estate and run off with friends to her husband’s country home where they would read poetry to one another—

봄이 가니 꽃들은 다투어 지고
해당화 홀로 남아 그 빛 붉구나
이 꽃조차 떨어지면 어찌할 거나
다시는 봄다운 꽃 볼 길이 없네

flowers quarrel & slouch
                     when Spring ends.

Light sheds a long ruddy glow
                     over the briar

& after these last petals
have fallen to the ground

                     & me—drunk.
fallen petals can’t possibly blush

                     & me—drunk.

Perhaps to seek the civilized where barbarism exists becomes itself a barbarous act—& the words themselves, “barbarism” and “civility,” laden with meaning that calls to mind the colonial, a colonization first of land—then the landscape of mind & consciousness, the region where calendars in conflict collide. Then something which penetrates further, to the transmission itself—to language, the vehicle of barbarous transmission.


From Cruel and Unusual, Mark Crispin Miller:

    Bush’s hatred of the North Korean tyrant [Kim Jong-Il] came as quite a shock to Kim Dae-Jung, South Korea’s president, when he came to Washington on March 7, 2001, expecting Bush to bless his efforts to resolve the tension between North and South. Instead, Bush stunned his guest by casting North Korea as a predatory threat.


    Bush thus set back the Korean reconciliation effort, pushed the North Koreans to speed up nuclear arms production, and soured US relations with both South Korea and Japan. After 9/11, with Iraq obsessing him, he sought to calm our allies in the East, whose fears he had just deepened by including North Korea in his “Axis of Evil,” the non-existent global network Bush had startlingly propounded in his State of the Union speech on January 9, 2002.


There is history & I too am implicated in its gathering, in its moment, in its gathering in the moment, through the moment, throwing the moment, projecting it outward. I am complicit in its movement—& the force with which it moves is unmitigated. I gather representations of the past into my arms & they color my present. As Basil Bunting remarks: then is diffused in now. But I do not agree. I cannot agree. The materiality of then is nowhere in the now. Museums are reliquaries made large & libraries are even larger reliquaries. Neither of them deliver to us anything more than a promise of the past. We believe the promise. We want to believe it. We must believe it. It is faith—faith in representation, construct, artifice. It is an unholy faith, a secular faith, but nonetheless faith.

If we peer inside the relic box we see bits of bone, fabric, dust, what is left of saints & the sacred. We are told they are sacred. Believing they are sacred is precisely that: belief not fact. The poems of the Hiroshima survivor Yasusada, Rexroth’s Marichiko, the Ossian William Blake so admired even after the hoax was exposed—these are evidence.

Here Hwang Chin-I emerges—as do Songi & Hyan Kum— the three of them kisaeng entertainers writing during the early Yi Dynasty (1392-1910). Of the three women, Hwang Chin-I is most well known. She is a conscript of the national mythology that passes from one generation to the next. Again we might look toward Emerson talking mythology—myth as quote, quote as myth:

    Mythology is no man’s work; but what we daily observe in regard to the bon-mots that circulate in society,—that every talker helps a story in repeating it, until, at last, from the slenderest filament of fact a good fable is constructed,—the same growth befalls mythology: the legend is tossed from believer to poet, from poet to believer, everybody adding grace or dropping a fault or rounding the form, until it gets an ideal truth.

One would be hard pressed to find a Korean citizen unable to recite Hwang’s poem “I would slice the waist” from memory. She is said to have existed. Of the writing she left behind only nine poems are extant, three of which are Sino-Korean verses. The other six are sijo. My translations of her work are drawn, perhaps appropriately, from a cheaply printed children’s book I stumbled upon in a small, cluttered shop very close to Waegwan Station. The Sino-Korean poems, or hanshi, have been transliterated by the editors of the book so that they appear not in Chinese but in Korean. The reading is thus suitable for children. The reading is thus suitable for imagination—

동짓달 기나긴 밤 한 허리 버혀내여
춘풍 이불 아래 서리서리 넣어다가
어른님 오신 날 밤이여든 구뷔구뷔 펴리라

어져 내 일이야 그릴 줄을 모르더냐
이시라 하더면 가랴마는 제 구태여
보내고 그리는 정은 나도 몰라 하노라

산은 옛 산이로되 물은 옛물 아니로다
주야에 흐르니 옛 물이 있을소냐
인걸도 물과 같아 가고 아니 오노매라

청산리 벽계수야 수이 감을 자랑마라
일도창해하면 돌아오기 어려우니
명월이 만공산하니 쉬어간들 어떠리

내 언제 무신 하여 님을 언제 속였기에
월심삼경 에 오는 뜻이 전혀 없네
추풍에 지는 잎 소리야 낸들 어이 하리오


I would slice the waist
of the long November night

& lock away each coil
under the quilt
of my balmy spring breeze

& if my lover returns
on the night of that day
I’ll unfold it at every bend:

a river wide & winding


How could I not know
how the days would unfold

How could he have left
if I demanded he stay—

It was knowingly I let him go

                     & I can’t say
why this love lingers
or the affliction of my longing

grows—nor do I know


This old mountain
persists in aging
while these waters do not

coursing each day
bounding each night
how could they grow old

restless as the waters flow
the heart of my lover
lies never in coming
lies always in going  


Brazen blue stream
don’t boast of ease
in leaping down
my emerald mountain

you might reach the ocean
but the path back ain’t easy

the iridescence of a harvest moon
wallows in my open valley

    slow your currents
    loaf a moment
    then flow


when would I have been so unfaithful
I could deceive—

it was never your intention to come
when the rising moon began to fall

listen to the fallen leaves shaken
by an autumn breeze—what can be done

The contemporary Catholic poet Ku Sang devoted ten years to writing an opera based on the fragmented tales that exist concerning Hwang’s life. At the time the opera was staged it was the largest ever performed on the southern half of the peninsula.

누가 곤산옥을 캐어 직녀의 빗을 만들었노
견우와 한 번 이별한 뒤 설워 공중에 내버렸네

청산은 내 뜻이오 녹수는 님의 정이로다
녹수 흘러간들 청산이야 변할손가
녹수도 청산을 못잊어 울어예어 가는고

꿈길에나 만나 보는 우리의 신세
나는 그 님 찾고 그 님은 나를 찾네
밤마다 서로 어긋나는 꿈길이어늘
이후엘랑 같이 떠나 길 가운데 만날지고

뜰 앞의 오동잎 다 져 버리고
서릿속에 들국화 곱게 피었네
다락 높아 자칫하면 하늘 닿을 듯
잔 거듭 드는 사이 취해 누었네
흐르는 물 어울려 차가웁고
매화 향 내음 피리 소리 뿜어 보내네
내일 아침 눈물지며 헤어진 추억
그리운 마음 물살 따리 끊임앖으리


who discovered the precious jade
that made the comb the Weaver held

they met on a bridge of crows
& at evening’s end Altair departed

dispossessed—Vega cast the comb away


my thought is a blue summer mountain
his affection a river broad & green

the mountain blue in the dog day
is unchanged by the bounding green river

the mountain settled in its memory
the broad green river weeps as it rolls


meeting on the open road of reverie
our lot’s been cast—

I follow his foot steps
as he ambles after mine

nightly on the open path of dream
we pass each other & travel amiss

& in this way I roam the center
of open roads without end


among copper leaves
fallen in the garden
a chrysanthemum blooms:

a lofty thing that without
luring might clutch the sky

I drank quite a bit
& inebriated
laid myself down

the scent of maehwa
mingled with flowing water
like the song of a flute
delivered to me—

tomorrow morning
divorced from such thoughts
I will weep

while my mind pursues
their running heels

Much like Hwang Chin-I, kisaeng entertainer Hyan Kum was an exceptionally versatile artist know for her ability to dance, sing, write verse and play the zither. She was involved intimately with the Choson king Chungjong (1506 – 1544). Once this relationship collapsed she withdrew from court life and devoted herself exclusively to writing verse. The extant verse attributed to her is Sino-Korean, but again I draw it from the children’s book where it has been transliterated into Korean—

산마다 누런 잎이 떨어지고는
해 지는데 기러기 하늘을 날고
어디선가 애끓는 피리 소리 들리는데
뜬 풀로 떠도는 손 눈물겹구나

along the mountain range
leaves fade to yellow & fall
wild geese soar across the sky
as the sun descends

I hear a flute—rending sound
& the one wandering
across the grass saddens me

It is not that there’s anything particularly exceptional about this poem—or, for that matter, my ability to translate it—but that it contains a word and this word is charged in such a way that it points toward the impossibility of translation. The word appears in the third line. Ae’kkulda (애끓다). It is a word so charged with meaning that it can never be properly translated. I have translated it here as “rending” but it is more than rending. The word expresses an emotional pain so intense that it is a pain which might tear one’s bowels to shreds. It is a word of Chinese origin and is connected to a story which involves a group of sailors following the coastline of mainland China. While moving along the coastline the sailors come upon two monkeys, a mother and child. Bored and inclined toward mischief, the sailors abduct the child and take him aboard the ship. As the ship continues along the coastline the sailors realize that the mother of the baby monkey they abducted has been following them along a cliff. In a fit of pity, the sailors anchor the ship and bring the baby monkey to shore, hoping to reunite it with its mother. As the mother approaches to reclaim her baby she suddenly dies. Curious, the sailors perform an autopsy of sorts on the mother. They find that her bowels have been torn apart by gastric acids. Such was the anxiety of separation. Separation. Like that of north & south.


During the 2000 U.S. presidential election the tension throughout south Korea was palpable. While Clinton enjoyed eight seemingly playful years in office north and south Korea experienced somewhat of a thaw in an otherwise icy relationship. Kim Dae-jung—who was imprisoned several times for his outspoken opposition to dictatorial regimes such as that of U.S. backed president Rhee Syngman and, later, Park Chunghee—was president of south Korea at the time of the U.S. presidential election. He had done much to foster an amicable dialogue between north & south while Clinton was in office. Indeed, his so-called “Sunshine” policy improved relations so much so that he received the Nobel Prize in 2000. Families which had been separated for over fifty years were, albeit it temporarily, reunited with one other. Large amounts of aid were delivered from the economically prosperous south to desperately impoverished north. Citizens of the south with ample time and money were allowed to travel north and visit Paektusan—a mountain widely regarded as an integral part of Korean myth and history, a space which stands as a cultural signifier that is prior to and transcends the division between north and south. Then George W. Bush was elected. By 2002 north Korea was included in George W’s fantastical axis of evil. Everything that was gained during Kim Dae-jung’s administration fell away as though it never were.

In late 1998 I traveled from Waegwan to Seoul for the weekend. My aim was to see a number of punk bands perform at the Drug Club, a squat-like space near Hong Ik University. Shipal were among the bands I saw that weekend.
싶팔. The word “shipal” can be used as an ordinal number to indicate 18. More often than not it’s part of a much larger pejorative statement which indicates: you would sell your mother’s pussy on the street as if she were a whore. Eventually the band had no choice but to change their name. But the weekend I watched them perform I was delighted to find them playing a cover, a song I had known for a long time. Indeed, it was a record I still owned and on it was a song by the British band The Exploited. The title of the song was succinct: Fuck the USA. Clad in tartan bondage trousers and cherry red liberty spikes, the band performed magnificently. The crowd—largely university students—appeared to be familiar with the song. They sang at the top of their lungs. They quoted and I recognized the quote. The language was my own and I wanted to believe I understood precisely what they were saying. Translation is a gesture toward community. It is also an act of aggression. Here there was something unmistakably savage in transmission, in the quote, and seated deeply inside it was an unspeakable civility.