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Artistic couple’s death leap spawns imitators

Aug 01,2004
For star-crossed young lovers, the surging waves in the dark ocean at 4 a.m. on this date looked like shelter from the rough world.
So the couple embraced each other and jumped into the dark sea from the ferry that was taking them from Simonoseki in Japan back to Busan. (They were crossing the Hyunhaetan Sea, or Genkai Sea, whose Chinese characters mean “mysterious yet dangerous.”)
The couple were Yun Sim-deok, the first professional Korean soprano and Kim U-jin, a playwright, both 29.
Their suicide created a sensation back in Korea, then under Japanese colonial rule, sparking talk of the chaos of the modern age. Many young Koreans followed the couple’s path, which was likened to the series of suicides in Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
Ms. Yun left behind a record with a track titled “Eulogy of Death,” in which she sang, “You, searching for happiness, what you’re trying to find is nothing but nihilism.” She had recorded the song in Osaka three days before leaving Japan.
In the wake of the double suicide, the song, based on the classical “Waves of the Danube,” became an unprecedented success both in Korea and in Japan. Their love story has become an eternal theme in movies and dramas to this day.
The two lovers met in 1921, five years before their fateful leap. Mr. Kim, born to a big landowner in Jeolla, was in Tokyo pursuing a career in drama while majoring in English literature at the prestigious Waseda University. After forming a drama troupe, Mr. Kim was on tour when he came across Ms. Yun, of Pyeongyang, a teacher at the Ueno Music School.
The two fell madly in love, though Mr. Kim was already a married man, after heeding his conservative father’s demand. The arranged marriage did not matter at all to these soulmates, which was the beginning of their tragedy.
Mr. Kim, remembered as a pioneer of Korean drama, was then a young, defiant man obsessed with philosophers like Nietzsche and Marx. Starting a career as a poet, Mr. Kim penned plays and critiques that shocked the Korean literature scene, then in its infancy.
To Mr. Kim, his lovely girlfriend was a match made in heaven. Ms. Yun, born into a poor family but famous for her beauty as well as her voice, was smart enough to secure a government scholarship to study in Tokyo, where she eventually became a music teacher.
After rosy days in Tokyo, however, Ms. Yun had to return home to Seoul, where she tried to pursue a career as a classical singer. But back then, her home country was not ready to appreciate Ms. Yun’s Western classical music, forcing her to become a pop singer and actress.
Anywhere she went, however, Ms. Yun was like a flower that attracts bees. In Seoul, men always hovered around her. Lee Yong-mun, a millionaire, was one such suitor who became a patron. He invited Ms. Yun to his house mostly at night.
People began to gossip, and newspapers started publishing stories about the actress’ affair. The news traveled to Tokyo to Mr. Kim, who was so angry that he refused to take Ms. Yun’s phone calls. He eventually sent her a goodbye letter.
Ms. Yun, on the other hand, was too worn out to deal with the controversy and abruptly left for Manchuria, where she spent several months wandering here and there.
When she left Manchuria, Ms. Yun decided to return to her lover’s side. Flying to Tokyo in 1926, Ms. Yun slowly won back Mr. Kim’s heart, only to decide to leave the world with him.
Following the suicide, rumors flew that the couple were in Italy, running a music store. What led people to believe this? Ms. Yun reportedly told her sister after recording “Eulogy of Death,” “You won’t see me until I become a success, so don’t try to find me.” But the rumors died down.
The two had once dreamed about going to Europe to study. Mr. Kim used to tell his girlfriend, “I’ll go to Germany to study drama, and Sim-deok, you’ll be in Italy to pursue music.
“Let’s get together once a month somewhere in between, like Switzerland, to talk about each other’s study and travel around the continent.”
Ms. Yun loved hearing the story, but she told him, “I think that’s going to be only a dream.” Sadly, she was right.


by Chun Su-jin