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A wanderer of nations

The poet Yun Dong-ju has moved onto the stage of legends and heroes.
July 21,2017
The poet Yun Dong-ju had a great charm that radiated through the three countries of Northeast Asia. He was born in Manchuria, on the other side of the Tumen River. After finishing primary school in his hometown, he went to Pyongyang to study at Sungsil Middle School and moved on to Yeonhui Technical School in Seoul. He then went to Japan to study and died in a prison in Fukuoka. His poetry is remembered and cherished in Korea, China and Japan.

Yun’s house in his hometown, now part of Jilin Province in China, is designated a cultural property. It is located in China’s autonomous Korean prefecture. Korean tourists stop at the house on their way to visiting the King Gwanggaeto Memorial and Mount Paektu. They come filled with national pride and yearn for unification, but end up with awkward disappointment when they see the sign at the house. In Korean and Chinese, it reads, “Birthplace of Yun Dong-ju, patriotic Korean-Chinese poet” with his poem “Foreword” from “Sky, Wind and Stars.” The visual shock ruins the sentiment of the pilgrimage.

In 2012, the city of Longjing in Jilin renovated the house, and ethnic Korean scholars and residents contributed work. However, the identity of the poet is confusing. He is described as Chinese with a minority background. Yun wrote in Korean. In his lifetime, the area was known as Jiandao, which belonged to Manchukuo, a puppet state of imperial Japan. Yun’s tomb is near the house. The person who discovered the grave was a Waseda university professor, Masuo Omura. The Japanese scholar specialized in Korean literature. In 1985, Omura was an exchange professor at Yanbian University, and he discovered the grave and tombstone in the mountain covered with weeds and soil.

Omura’s accomplishments continued. In 1986, he was the first academic to gain access to Yun’s handwritten work. The surviving family acknowledged his devotion and sincerity. Omura wrote in his book, “My hands were shaking with overwhelming emotion when I first saw the manuscripts. Yun Dong-ju’s friend Jung Byung-uk’s family secretly kept a collection of poems, another friend Kang Cheo-jeung had keepsakes and works, and Yun’s sister and her husband had a draft note.”

Omura’s recollection is quite bitter. “Ten years later, a Korean scholar, Prof. Wang Shin-young of Dankook University, asked to see the handwritten manuscripts. According to Yun’s remaining family, no one asked to personally see the works even when Yun was a topic of active discussion.”

Omura’s recollection embarrasses Korea’s literary circle. It was soft disdain. There is a reason Korean writers and scholars missed this opportunity: Yun’s grave was discovered before relations between South Korea and China were normalized.

But it is a different story with the handwritten manuscripts. Korean scholars are not interested in collecting primary sources. Instead, they are accustomed to posthumous analysis, reviews and critique. Professor Wang, who teaches Japanese, said on July 19, “What surprised me was the fact that I was the first Korean requesting to see Yun Dong-ju’s manuscript in person. It showed the indifference, or neglect, of Korea’s literary circle.

It is too early to be disappointed. There are people who are curious and conscious. Professor Wang focused on copying and saving the handwritten notes. “While reading the manuscripts, I felt like Yun was confiding his secrets to me and I was listening to him in person.” The project led to a publication, and Professor Omura and Yun In-suk, a relative of the poet, are participating. In 1999, they jointly published the “Yun Dong-ju Anthology.” The book has an undisputable status, something that must not be missed when learning about the poet.

A stele on the campus of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, includes Yun’s poetry. It was erected by Korean-Japanese graduates of the university. “Foreword” is written on the stele, and next to it is a stele with poetry by Jung Ji-yong, who also went to Doshisha University. The steles stand at the center of the university.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Yun’s birth. He has moved onto the stage of legends and heroes. Essayist Shin Gil-woo, who has been tracking Yun’s life since the early 1990s, is wary of the excessive trendiness.

“Yun’s poetry is based on resistance and nationalism, but we should not focus on them,” he said. “We appreciate his poems as his pure and clean soul is revealed in his own poetic language.”

JoongAng Ilbo, July 20, Page 27

*The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Park Bo-gyoon