A journey through death in Yoo Sun-hoo’s After 4: Over the Moon

Published: August 15, 2017
A journey through death in Yoo Sun-hoo’s After 4: Over the Moon
ZOO Southside, Edinburgh
August 9, 2017

David Mead


The Fringe has the lovely habit of coming up with the unexpected, shows that you only drop in on because there’s a hole in the schedule, but that turn out to be something special. Hidden away in the intimate studio at ZOO Southside most afternoons is one such.

In Korea, when people die they say that they have ‘crossed the river’ or ‘gone over the moon’. Hoo Dance Company’s After 4: Over the Moon is a meditation on death, created and performed by Yoo Sun-hoo. An 80-year old woman has died. Yoo conjures up the four rivers that the woman must traverse on her journey through death (the ‘After 4’ of the title) for her soul to be free, and so she can be reincarnated into a flower. As she comes to each waterway, she meets four envoys of death, each neatly heard in music and song rather than seen.

The dance and music come together perfectly to create a spectacle that’s poetic and sensitive. An air of ritual pervades throughout. But while, Yoo draws on dance from ceremonies and Jindo purification rites, and from that taught by her master in Korea, she adds her own movement to it to create something contemporary. It’s not traditional per se, although the roots are clear.

Contra-bass player JC Curve’s score is as much part of the experience of After 4 as the dance. The four live musicians of E-Do are outstanding, responding perfectly to the mood and dance on a variety of traditional and electronic instruments including the 11-stringed geomungo, chulhyungeum (an iron-stringed zither, a sort of cross between a guitar and geomungo), daegeum (long bamboo flute) and Korean drum. Most fascinating, though, is the circular, metal, rav drum, originating in Germany and Switzerland, and in which steel tongues vibrate to create a wonderfully harmonious sound.

Starting with the Black River, Yoo appears in a costume of white hemp, traditionally used for shrouds, but with a modernist touch. A flower in her hair and another in her teeth reference the blooms place in graves. There’s a shamanistic air as she slowly reaches and stretches, her body contorting painfully in an outpouring of anguish. The mood is heightened by the chanting of a singer.

A simple bell announces the next river; the next stage of her journey. The Invisible River sees her move under a simple white sheet, her body creating ghostly amorphous forms in the fabric. The folds create patches ever-changing moments of light and dark. It’s here that the rav drum, played by Lee Kyung-gu comes into its own. After the sheet is pulled away, receding like an ebbing tide, dust is tossed in the air, marking her arrival at the Ash River. A sense of approaching happiness and journey’s end is apparent in the choreography and accompanying flute.

The final crossing is of the Soul River, represented by a long, pink fabric. Four rivers, four angels of death, four dances, but at last the woman can be free. After 4 concludes with a sense of happiness. She has been reincarnated. She smiles. We breathe.

After 4: Over the Moon continues at 2pm at ZOO Southside to August 28. Click here for details.
Running time 70 minutes

The musicians of E-Do have their own concert on August 21, also at 2pm at ZOO Southside. Details here.

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Mind Dramaturgy: Lee Kyung @ Edfringe 2017


Lee K. Dance – supported by Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea
UK Premiere
Award-winning Korean choreographer Lee Kyung Eun exorcises the spirit of our confusing world in her intense and visceral solo piece
Dance Base, 16 – 27 Aug 2017 (not 21), 17:40 (18:10)
Mind-Goblin (2)
In this solo performance, choreographer and dancer Lee Kyung Eun explores Korean shamanic ritual and the nature of the individual in the chaotic world, one of a showcase of five Korean productions arriving at the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In a physically intense half hour, Lee Kyung Eun examines goblins of both the mind and body. Interrogating the idea that her mind and body is a universe of its own, she becomes simultaneously the possessed spirit and the shaman who practices the rite of exorcism. Her body catches itself, stretches out, searches for space, exploring her territory, investigating and listening to herself. Voices of different languages ​​mingle with the throbbing music of Jimmy Sert’s sound design, an incantation and a supplication that chimes with the ritualistic movement.

The power of the body is central to Lee’s work, and through her career she has rewritten the history of Korean dance, rebelling against the typical female dancer, and creating a new character, provocative, androgynous, conceptual and popular.

The Korean rituals that inspired Lee are designed to expel the Dokkaebi, powerful but foolish spirits that can also resemble a grotesque and humorous looking goblin. The rituals can involve hunting the spirits by making loud metallic crashing sounds, applying blood-soaked towels to bamboo canes around the house, and never looking behind yourself – to avoid seeing the spirit and become the object of his vengeance. In this performance, the foolish and confusing world is the Dokkaebi, and the entire performance the exorcism.

Lee said, “Authentic art with the spirit can easily communicate with anyone”.

Lee K. Dance is a professional contemporary dance company established by the choreographer Lee Kyung Eun in 2002. Based on the art philosophy that “Authentic art with the spirit can easily communicate with anyone”, Lee K Dance continues to evolve a distinct identity through its collaborations with other genres based on its passion for creation, its open mind, and its flexible yet powerful dance techniques.

1. What was the inspiration for this performance?
This goblin (a Dokkaebi) has interesting things that appear differently in the stories and histories of the East and the West. In the West, Dokkaebi is like a ghost like Dracula in the West, but Dokkaebi, which appears in oriental and especially Korean folklore, is also a friendly and affectionate friend to humans. By putting together the different viewpoints of these two worlds, we collide with each other the parts that we want to conceal in the inner world (mind), and this also reveals the process of recognizing and harmonizing myself as a win-win situation. Perhaps it may reveal the East and the West philosophy as a process of win-win cooperation through Dokkaebi gut(performance of exorcism).
2. Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
It is the inner scenery where every ordinary person fights through life. The struggling process is shown as one body, one body when it comes to the world. It is not the nature of life that has only one human being whose environment for living is removed.
The manner in which the body interprets and expresses the spirit and coexistence of the five elements (fire, water, wood, gold, and earth) in oriental philosophy will be a fairy tale space where the audience can look at themselves. I hope that the process of reviving art through the body will allow the audience to have a chance to discuss how the image of the heartbeat can be imaged beyond the imagination of the choreographer.
3. How did you become interested in making performance?
I was always interested in the usual Oriental philosophy or traditional themes, such as the goblins, Korean shamanic ritual, and the nature of the individual in the chaotic world. Then, Anita Matieu, director of Rencontres chorégraphiques internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis, commissioned the production.
SIDance and the Festival in France co-produced this piece and it was premiered in France in May 2016 through a one-year production process, and premiered Korea in October of the same year.
4. Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
First, I did a research on the subject of the goblin. He has focused on visualizing the goblins of the Dokkaebi gut (exorcism), the five elements and yin and yang, the inner idea and abstraction. I made a detailed approach to the imagined image through artistic approach and movement research.
5. Does the show fit with your usual productions?
My choreography theme approaches the authentic self – story with the subject of ordinary human being. This work is also consistent with the theme, especially based on the Oriental philosophy, the body began with the premise and tried to experiment with intense artistic expression.
6. What do you hope that the audience will experience?
The situation in which a human being struggles for 30 minutes on stage may be a thumbnail of life for 30 years or 300 years. I want to experience the catharsis through fairy tale and acceptance with the feeling of seeing the gut (exorcism), and to be a chance to contemplate life naturally like water.
7. What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
It is a picture of the human body itself, not a special or distant story. In order to realise the same situation as the audience, it is a strategy that hopes to project the audience through an authentic performance, eliminating the accessories and standing on the stage with one empty body in the empty space. How to solve also comes in a given situation. Is not life so alone? This is a strategy.
MindGoblin is part of a showcase of Korean shows at the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe, supported by Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea – consisting of MEDEA on mediaBehind the MirrorTAGO: Korean Drum, MindGoblin and SNAP.
Lee Kyung Eun was awarded Performer Prize from the Korean Association of Dance Critics and Researchers for the piece Mind-Goblin in 2016, and Best New Dancer from the Contemporary Dance Association of Korea for her debut Wavering Heart in 1996. Lee was acknowledged nationally and internationally for her talents as a choreographer when she was awarded the Gold Prize at the 4th Korean Choreographer Festival and when she received first place at the 8th International Solo Tanz Theatre Festival in Germany. She was also awarded Best Choreographer at the 2003 Dance Festival for the Critics’ Choice of Young Artists. She received 2nd Grand Atelier Choregraphes-Compositeurs at the Royaumont Foundation. She has performed at SIDance, MODAFE, SPAF, the Tokyo Dance Biennale (Japan), the APAP/Dumbo Festival (US), Fondation Royaumont (France), Sziget Festival (Hungary), Kaay Fecc/Makinu Bantu (Africa) and in Germany. Her major works include This is Not a Dream, Chunmong (A Spring Dream), Between, OFF destiny, One, Two, Five, With Momo, Hide the Eye, Tears and Eye.

Company Information

Choreographed and performed by Lee Kyung Eun
Sound design by Sert Jimmy Lighting design by Gang Young Ku
Dramaturgy by Ahn Kyungmo Costume by Lee Kyung Eun
Co-produced by SIDance and Les Rencontres chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis
Listings information
Dance Base, 14-16 Grassmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2JU (Venue 22)
16 – 27 Aug (not 21), 17:40-18:10
Previews 16 Aug: £10 (£8 concs)
17 – 27 Aug: £12 (£10 concs)
www.dancebase.co.uk | 0131 225 5525


Supported by Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea.
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WSJ Trump Interview Excerpts: China, North Korea, Ex-Im Bank, Obamacare, Bannon, More


The Wall Street Journal held a wide-ranging interview with President Donald Trump on Wednesday , in which he talked about tying a trade deal with China to Beijing’s North Korea policy, addressed where things stand on a health overhaul, said he supported the Export-Import Bank, and weighed in on the United Airlines controversy, among other topics. Here are some selected excerpts from the Oval Office interview:

* * *

Trump on China and North Korea

But we had a really good meeting [with Chinese President Xi Jinping], and it was supposed to be 10 minute session and then you go into a room with hundreds of people, you know all different representatives, and the meeting was scheduled for 10 to 15 minutes, and it lasted for 3 hours. And then the second day we had another 10 minute meetings and that lasted for 2 hours. We had a — just a very good chemistry.


He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years …and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not — it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have — that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also — a lot of goods come in. But it’s not what you would think. It’s not what you would think.

We have tremendous trade deficits with everybody, but the big one is with China. It’s hundreds of billions of dollars of year for many many years. And I told them. I said you know, we’re not going to let that go ahead. Now, I did say — but you want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea. That’s worth having deficits. And that’s worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make. OK, I’ll make great deals.

You cannot allow a country like that [North Korea] to have nuclear power, nuclear weapons. That’s mass destruction. And he doesn’t have the delivery systems yet, but he — you know he will.

So, you know we [Trump and Xi] have a very open dialogue on North Korea. We have a very good relationship, we have great chemistry together. We like each other, I like him a lot. I think his wife is terrific. And you know, it’s very rare that he comes and stays with somebody and spends that much time.

* * *

Trump on the Ex-Im Bank:

I will tell you what, I was very much opposed to Ex-Im Bank, because I said what do we need that for IBM and for General Electric and all these — it turns out that, first of all lots of small companies will really be helped, the vendor companies, but also maybe more importantly, other countries give it. And when other countries give it, we lose a tremendous amount of business.

So instinctively you would say it’s a ridiculous thing but actually it’s a very good thing and it actually makes money. You know, it actually could make a lot of money.

* * *

Trump on payments currently made to health insurers under the Affordable Care Act

Obamacare is dead — it’s dead. Obamacare, if you look at the case, you know the famous lawsuit that’s out there [about whether payments to insurers were approved by Congress], right? You know that if we follow that lawsuit, we’re not supposed to pay money toward Obamacare — you know, Obama just paid the money because he couldn’t get approved — the approval from Congress.

Well, Congress hasn’t approved it, so if Congress doesn’t approve it, or if I don’t approve it, that would mean that Obamacare doesn’t have enough money so it dies immediately as opposed to over a period of time. Even if it got that money, it dies, but it dies over a period of time.

… This is a very big deal that nobody even understands. I understand it, but most people out there don’t know it. So, Congress is going to have to approve it [the insurance payments]. Will they approve it? I don’t know, I’m not sure, 50-50. If they approve it, then I will have to approve it. Otherwise, those payments don’t get made and Obamacare is gone, just gone.

Now, what should be happening is [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer should be calling me up and begging me to help him save Obamacare. That’s what should happen. He should be calling me and begging me to help him save Obamacare, along with [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi.

… The longer — the longer I’m behind this desk and you have Obamacare, the more I would own it. Right now, we don’t own it at all.

* * *

On whether Trump would lay out principles for tax reform before passing new health law:

No. I want to get health care done and if I don’t get it done — I think I will get it done.

* * *

Trump on strategy and Steve Bannon’s role:

“I do my own policy, I’m my own strategist. I don’t have — I have people that I respect, I have people that I listen to, I have many people and then I make the decision. I’m just saying that [Mr. Bannon] is a guy who works for me, he’s a good guy. But, I make my own decision. I don’t have people making decisions.”

* * *

Trump on Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen and the dollar:

[He is asked whether Yellen was “toast” when it came to being nominated to another term.] No, not toast. You know, I like her, I respect her. She’s been here, she’s been in that seat. I do like the low interest rate policy, but I must be honest with you, I think our dollar is getting too strong, and partially that’s my fault because people have confidence in me. But, you know, that’s hurting — that will hurt ultimately. Look there are some very good things about a strong dollar, but usually speaking the best thing about it is that it sounds good. You know, it’s very, very hard to compete when you have a strong dollar and the other guy — other countries are devaluing the currency. It’s very hard for our manufacturers to compete.

* * *

Trump on whether U.S. would insist that Syria’s Assad step aside:

I think that there’s such outrage over what he’s done and I think we’ve highlighted that. … I think there’s such outrage, are we insisting on it? No. But I do think it’s going to happen at a certain point. But we’re not going into Syria.

* * *

Trump on whether peace would be “impossible” with Assad still in place:

Well I think it’s hard to imagine, I wouldn’t use the word impossible, but I do think it’s hard. …

No I think the word impossible is not right. But it does seem like you certainly wouldn’t be off to a good start but again we have other fights, that are fights that are more important as far as our nation’s concerned, we have other — we don’t need that quicksand.

* * *

Trump on the passenger who was forcibly removed from a United flight:

Oh, that was horrible. No, no, they should…offer more money. Maybe you double, triple, quadruple. You know, there’s a point at which I’m getting off the plane.

* * *

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As Sunken Ferry Is Finally Raised, Documentary Explores What Comes After the Sewol

By Bruce Harrison in The Diplomat

A new documentary attempts to uncover the factors behind one of South Korea’s greatest tragedies.

The makers of a documentary about the sinking of the ferry Sewol could not have anticipated their film’s release would nearly overlap with the raising of the ship.

After oversights and missteps in the salvage, and poor weather at sea, the South Korean government and its contractors were unable to say for sure when they would recover the ferry. There were many delays in the unprecedented operation. The Sewol has now been hauled to port nearly three years after it sank on April 16, 2014.

The government had raced to beat another anniversary; the film’s release will mark it.

British filmmakers Neil George and Matt Root will launch their first project together, After the Sewol, three years to the day of the sinking. The release, for now, will be a 24-hour window in which you can stream the documentary for a small fee. A full online release is expected after screenings at several international film festivals this year.

Neil George (left) Matt Root (right)

Neil George (left) Matt Root (right) in a screenshot from After the Sewol

Early in its 90 minutes, the documentary revisits the day the Sewol went down and the government’s bungled response. At first everyone was reported to be safe. Then, suddenly, hundreds were unaccounted for and the ship’s blue hull was facing the sky.

In the end, over 300 drowned, mostly students from Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb. Nine are still missing.

The anger generated by the government’s failed rescue efforts was later compounded by what’s widely accepted as the cause of the sinking – a massively overloaded ship and a largely inept crew.

The country’s long struggle with political and regulatory corruption had a new rallying cry: Sewol. How was this still possible in such an economically developed, technologically advanced country?

“Corruption, suppression, lack of awareness, ignorance, greed, a mix of all of these perhaps,” says George, referring to a decades-old problem of safety-related disasters in South Korea.

“When we look back at Korean history we see a lot of issues and no real action, and as we researched deeper it became clear why,” he says.

The “why” is what George and Root are searching for in the film. It’s a journey across Korea through the eyes of two expats. It’s also a call beyond Korea.

“If we choose to ignore safety standards, these kinds of accidents will unfortunately happen again and again,” says Root, adding all countries should take heed.

After the Sewol has its share of emotional moments. There’s the gut-wrenching cell phone video of students realizing they’re likely about to die. Class photos of students who drowned appear in some shots, though not very many.

George and Root don’t want you to linger on those moments for long.

“We don’t want this to be an overly harrowing film,” says George. “There’s already enough emotion attached to the tragedy.”

They’re trying to reach audiences with a bigger message: without effective change, history will continue to repeat itself. Families of the victims who agreed to go on camera stress this as well. The process to gain the trust of some families took well over a year, says Root.

Still, their critics, including right-wing politicians, say the families only want a new investigation so they get their hands on more government compensation.

At the first private screening on the film, Jeong Seong-wook, whose son died in the Sewol sinking, said that’s not true.

“The value of human pain is global. I want people [around the world] to realize that through this movie,” he said. “I want people to value human rights.”

Jeong has been one of the most prominent faces of a victims’ family group pushing for a new investigation. The National Assembly approved a law for that in March, but Jeong is displeased. The maximum investigation length falls significantly short of what he and others campaigned for.

Jeong and many others fighting to uncover the “truth” behind the sinking believe the government under former President Park Geun-hye impeded the initial investigation. They say a number of suspicions about the disaster need to be addressed before it’s truly known how the Sewol capsized.

Their critics believe the first investigative committee squandered its time and that there’s no need to spend more taxpayer dollars on a sinking that’s been solved.

George and Root will focus more on the investigation in their second film, After the Sewol: ‘The Sewol Generation.’

As the title suggests, they’ll also explore the so-called “Sewol Generation:” younger South Koreans who have risen up to demand government accountability, from the Sewol disaster to the Choi Soon-sil corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment and arrest.

Filming on part two has already started, and the crew was at Mokpo Port to document the arrival of the Sewol. Production will continue as the government searches the ship for the bodies of the nine missing passengers, and at some point, begins a new investigation.

After the Sewol will be screened at the International Independent Film Awards, where it won the Platinum Award for Best Documentary. It will also be shown at the Depth of Field International Film Awards, where it was nominated for Best Documentary.



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Neighboring Country’s Mean Behavior: Written by Jong Phil

#NorthKorea accuses #China of “dancing to tune of US” re sanctions. #DPRK‘s most explicit attack on #PRC yet


Pyongyang, February 23 (KCNA) — The DPRK made a complete success in the test-fire of surface-to-surface medium to long-range strategic ballistic missile Pukguksong-2 on February 12 under the energetic guidance of respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. The news instantly jolted the world and the international community is acknowledging the nuclear attack capability of the DPRK that has made rapid progress in quality.

Leading media of the world are unanimous in assessing that the acknowledged success in the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 was a demonstration of the DPRK’s strategic superiority as it proved impossibility of advance detection by satellite, interception and preemptive attack.

However, a neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a “friendly neighbor”, is downplaying the significance of the test-fire, branding it as a “nuclear technology just at the beginning” and threatening “the DPRK will suffer the biggest loss.”

In particular, it has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people’s living standard under the plea of the UN “resolutions on sanctions” devoid of legal ground.

It has often stated that the UN “resolutions on sanctions” should not have negative impact on the people’s living. Its recent measures are, in effect, tantamount to the enemies’ moves to bring down the social system in the DPRK.

This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the U.S. while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK but to check its nuclear program.

The righteous voices of the world deride it, commenting that “a big neighboring country is imposing sanctions on the DPRK to curry favor with the U.S.” But the hostile forces are shouting “bravo” over this.

The DPRK manufactured a nuclear weapon in a few years, which would take others tens of years, and completed the new latest strategic weapon system in a matter of six months with its own efforts and indigenous technology. This shows the might of its tremendous defence industry.

It is utterly childish to think that the DPRK would not manufacture nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic rockets if a few penny of money is cut off.

The DPRK will produce the latest weapons unprecedented in history as many as it wants as it has the self-reliant defence industry, provided by President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il with their lifelong dedication, and scientists and technicians in the field of defence industry working hard in do-or-die spirit guided by the faith that the strategic idea and intention of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea must be put into practice.

These weapons would invest the DPRK with capabilities for protecting peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the rest of the world.

The present reality makes the people of the DPRK keenly feel once again the validity of the WPK’s line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force.

The DPRK will invariably advance straight along the road indicated by the Party’s line and deal a heavy blow to the U.S. and its vassal forces by dint of powerful nuclear deterrence and thus win the final victory. -0-

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Choigate: A Conservative-Christian Witch Hunt?

With so many rumours flying around about this extraordinary situation, let me throw one into the mix: Is the current situation driven by old-guard conservatives, right-wing Christians, the ChoJoongDong, and the anti-Park branch of Saenuri?

Some background which prompted this thinking.

Last year, Korean friends put me in touch with a professor who was close to a leading figure in the anti-Park faction of Saenuri. This gentleman was interested in having a group of foreign correspondents meet this figure and asked if I, as a foreign reporter, could set this up a lunch meeting with some of my colleagues. I said, “Possibly” – but let’s meet first.

We did not get along. The professor had a conspiracy theory on everything – notably the Sewol and the Cheonan sinkings (he alleged the latter was sunk by an Israeli submarine). End result: Nothing came of the meeting. As far as I know, he did not approach any of my colleagues.

But I have wondered about it since. What is striking about Choigate is that the main reporting, and the strongest allegations, come, not from the left (as you might expect) but from the right. The Dong-ah first reported the story. JTBC and the Joongnang picked up the ball and ran with it. The Chosun has followed and has come out with the strongest editorializing calling for the disempowerment of Her Parkness. (As anyone who reads my posts knows, I am no supporter of Park.)

Look at the key elements of this situation:

  • Cronyism and influence peddling is common (inevitable?) in Korean political and economic organizations, including the Blue House. (As we know from the record of all ex-presidencies since Park I, who was pretty clean.)
  • Widespread distrust and even hatred of late-term presidents is par for the course. (Who on earth would want to be president of Korea? You end up in exile (Rhee), assassinated (Park), sentenced to death (Chun and Roh I), dead (Roh II) or with family members jailed or in trouble (Chun, Kim I, Kim II, Roh II, Lee.) )
  • Rumor-mongering and excitability among a “passionate” public, often driven by dubious media reports, is yet another commonality. (Let us not forget some of the downright false reporting that helped spark the “mad cow” protests in 2008).
  • The “Court of Public Opinion” is very, very strong in Korea – one might argue stronger than actual institutions. (As witness the public furies which periodically rise, and which the bureaucracy then reacts to – we have seen this with everything from USFK to foreign PEFs.)
  • Choigate is different in one sense: A charismatic/cultish, semi-Shaman is the central figure. She is not just a mentor to the president – but, it is alleged, influences and controls her with semi-hypnotic or even supernatural power.

Those familiar with Korean Christianity will be aware of how many offbeat strands of them have Shamanistic influences. But equally, many “orthodox” Christians despise such cultish outgrowths – and particularly despise mudangs/shamans.

Those familiar with Korea will also be aware of the power of the conservative newspapers (“ChoJoongDong”), who were outrageously partisan against Roh II – and arguably were a factor in driving the right-wing party to ill-advisedly impeach him.

So I posit: Could the current situation be driven by the anti-Park faction and by conservative Christians – backed by the ChoJoongDong – all of whom are irked by Choi’s apparent power and influence in the Blue House?

Before the clamour grows too loud: Please note that this is mere theory.

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The Irrational Downfall of Park Geun-hye


President Park Geun-hye issues a public apology

President Park Geun-hye issues a public apology on October 25, 2016. (source)

President Park Geun-hye is deep trouble. The stories have been out for a few days now, and even the English-language papers have caught on. Park’s confidant has been running a massive slush fund, as she extorted more than $70 million from Korea’s largest corporations. The confidant was receiving confidential policy briefings and draft presidential speeches–all on a totally unencrypted computer. The confidant rigged the college admission process so that her daughter, not known to be sharpest tool in the shed, would be admitted into the prestigious Ewha Womans University. That last bit turned out to be the first step toward the president’s ruin, as Ewha students’ protest over that preferential treatment developed into the larger investigation about the relationship between Park and her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.

But the English language coverage of this scandal is missing something. The newspapers do have most of the facts, which they recount diligently. But they fail to fully account for the Korean public’s stunned disbelief. Although the scale of the corruption here is significant, Koreans have seen much, much worse. Not long ago, Korean people have seen Chun Doo-hwan, the former president/dictator, made off with nearly $1 billion, and this was back in the mid-1980s when the money was worth more than $4 billion in today’s dollars. Even the democratically elected presidents of Korea–every single one of them–suffered from corruption charges. Lee Myung-bak, the immediate predecessor to Park, saw his older brother (himself a National Assemblyman) go to prison over bribery. Lee’s controversial Four Rivers Project, which cost nearly $20 billion, was widely seen as a massive graft project to push government funding to his cronies who were operating construction companies.

For better or worse (mostly worse,) Korean people have come to expect corruption from their presidents. So why is this one by Park Geun-hye causing such a strong reaction? It is not because Korean people discovered that Park was corrupt; it is because they discovered Park was irrationally corrupt. Koreans are not being dismayed at the scale of the corruption; they are shocked to see what the scale of the corruption signifies.

The “Rasputin”

Choi Soon-sil [최순실]

Choi Soon-sil [최순실] (source)

Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal revolves around a central question: why would the president risk her administration for Choi Soon-sil? In fact, one of Park’s selling points as the presidential candidate was that she was less likely to be corrupt because she had no family. Her parents–former dictator Park Chung-hee and his wife Yuk Yeong-su–were dead, and she was estranged from her sister and brother. This argument had a modicum of plausibility, since all the previous president’s corruption involved their family in some way. (Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had issues with their sons; Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak, their brothers.)

But the lack of family did not stop Park Geun-hye from being corrupt, because she apparently had to give money to Choi Soon-sil. But why did Park Geun-hye, the president, even bother with Choi Soon-sil, a nobody? To answer this question, we must look back into modern Korean history to trace the relationship between Park and Choi.

Choi Tae-min (right) meets with Park Chung-hee (left) and Park Geun-hye (center)

Choi Tae-min (right) meets with Park Chung-hee (left) and Park Geun-hye (center) (source)

Park Geun-hye met Choi Soon-sil through Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min. The elder Choi, born in 1912, was a pseudo-Christian cult leader. He started his adult life as a policeman and soldier, and at one point he worked at a small newspaper and a soap factory. By 1970s, Choi was fully engaged in the occupation for which he would be known: being a cult leader, claiming to heal people. Choi called himself a pastor, but he never attended a seminary.

Choi Tae-min met Park Geun-hye for the first time in 1975, when Park was 23. Park Geun-hye had just lost her mother, who was assassinated by a North Korean spy. (The spy was aiming for Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, but missed and killed the first lady instead.) Shortly after the assassination, the elder Choi sent several letters to Park Geun-hye, claiming that the soul of Park’s mother visited him, and Park could hear from her mother through him. Park invited Choi Tae-min to the presidential residence, and the elder Choi told her there that Park’s mother did not truly die, but merely moved out of the way to open the path for Park Geun-hye. This was the beginning of the unholy relationship between Park Geun-hye and Choi’s family, which included Choi Tae-min’s daughter Soon-sil.

Once the elder Choi won Park Geun-hye’s confidence, he leveraged the relationship to amass a fortune. Choi set up a number of foundations, with Park Geun-hye as the nominal head, and peddled influence. The influence-peddling and bribery became so severe that the dictator Park Chung-hee summoned Choi Tae-min to personally interrogate him. In the interrogation session and thereafter, Park Geun-hye would fiercely defend Choi, her spiritual guide and connection to her dead mother. In a Wikileaks cable from 2007 when Park Geun-hye first ran for president, the U.S. Ambassador for Korea noted: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”

Choi Tae-min’s high times ended on October 26, 1979, when his patron lost her father in another assassination. (Fittingly, Park Geun-hye’s own downfall began around October 26 of this year.) The assassin Kim Jae-gyu, then-head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, said one of the reasons why he decided to assassinate his boss was because of the toxic relationship between Choi Tae-min and Park Geun-hye. Although Park Chung-hee was fully aware of Choi Tae-min’s grafting, the elder Park let it continue for the sake of his daughter. Kim believed that this was another indication that Park Chung-hee was losing his marbles.

For the next decade, Park Geun-hye and Choi Tae-min were removed from politics. The assassination of Park Chung-hee led to another round of murderous dictatorship, this time by Chun Doo-hwan, then finally democratization in 1987. During that time, Park operated several charitable foundations, which were in reality no more than private slush funds made up of the money that Choi grifted during her father’s reign. Park Geun-hye became so dependent on Choi Tae-min that she would be estranged from her remaining family, her sister Park Geun-ryeong and her brother Park Ji-man. In 1990, Park’s siblings went so far as to petition then-president Roh Tae-woo that their sister be “rescued” from Choi Tae-min’s control.

Choi Tae-min died in 1994, at which point Park Geun-hye’s confidence moved to Choi’s daughter, Soon-sil. Park entered politics in 1997, winning her first election as an Assemblywoman in 1998. She would prove to be a competent politician, earning the nickname “Queen of Elections.” She lost in the presidential primaries to Lee Myung-bak in 2007, but came back strong to win the nomination and eventually the presidency in 2012. Although Park’s relationship with the Choi family briefly became an issue during her two presidential runs, she dismissed them as baseless rumors, claiming that neither Choi Tae-min nor Choi Soon-sil was involved in her works as a politician.

As it turned out, Choi Soon-sil owned Park Geun-hye just as much as her father did. Peddling the presidential influence, Choi extorted tens of millions of dollars from Korea’s largest corporations. When they found a small and profitable company, Choi’s cronies would straight-up steal it, threatening the owner of the company with the company’s destruction and personal harm. More importantly, Choi effectively controlled the presidential power. Every day, Choi would receive a huge stack of policy briefs from the presidential residence to discuss with her inner circle–an illustrious group that included Choi’s gigolo (no, really) and a K-pop music video director (I’m serious.) Choi would receive ultra-confidential information detailing secret meetings between South and North Korean military authorities. Choi would receive in advance the budget proposal of more than $150 million for the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, and distributed them to her friends’ projects. Choi went around saying North Korea would collapse by 2017 according to the spirits that spoke to her, and the Park Geun-hey administration may have set its North Korea policy based on this claim.

For years, Park’s aides complained about the mysterious off-line person to whom the president would send her draft speeches–when the drafts returned, the professionally written speeches were turned into gibberish. We now know that one of Choi Soon-sil’s favorite activities was to give comments on the presidential speeches. Even the famous Dresden speech, in which Park Geun-hye outlined her administration’s North Korea policy, had a number of markups from Choi Soon-sil. The aides who dug too deep into the relationship between Park and Choi were dismissed and replaced with those close to Choi, to a point that Choi’s personal trainer became a presidential aide. No, really. I wish I were joking. 

The Reckoning

Choi Soon-sil's selfie from the recovered Galaxy Tab

Choi Soon-sil’s selfie from the recovered Galaxy Tab (source)

It is entirely fitting that this sordid affair began unraveling because of a preferential treatment that Choi’s daughter received in her college admission. If there is one thing that Koreans cared more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree. As the heat rose against Choi and her daughter, they hightailed to Germany where they owned a horse farm.

The major breakthrough occurred on October 24, when a cable TV network JTBC discovered a Galaxy Tab belonging to Choi Soon-sil in the office that she abandoned. The tablet was the Pandora’s Box–it had the presidential speeches with Choi’s markups, presidential briefs for cabinet meetings, appointment information for presidential aides, chat messages with presidential aides, the president’s vacation schedule, draft designs for commemorative stamps featuring the president, and much, much more. The discovery of the tablet was worthy of “World’s Dumbest Criminals”–the tablet was simply left behind in Choi’s office with no encryption, and the files were available for anyone to open. And just in case Choi Soon-sil denied ownership of the tablet, its image gallery contained her selfie.

The next day, the president attempted to stem the tide by issuing a public apology, in which she said Choi was someone who “helped during [her] difficult past.” Although Park admitted that Choi had reviewed the draft speeches, she said Choi only conveyed her personal impressions, and at any rate stopped shortly after her presidential office was formed. The ensuing tsunami of revelations showed immediately that the president was lying; one of Choi’s cronies said Choi was receiving presidential briefing as recently as earlier this year. The president’s approval rating plummeted to around 17 percent, with more than 40 percent of the respondents demanding resignation or impeachment. Even conservative newspapers like Chosun Ilbo, which has been reliably in Park’s corner throughout her administration, has issued daily editorials demanding the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet to resign.

Meanwhile, Korean people’s collective heads exploded. As discussed earlier, it takes quite a bit for Korean politics to shock the Korean people. Having survived a particular tumultuous modern democratic history, Korean people may be the world’s most cynical consumers of politics. But this. Even the most cynical Koreans were not ready for this.

On some level, there is a tiny bit of perverse relief, as all the bizarre actions of Park Geun-hye administration suddenly began to make sense. Why did the president only hold just three press conferences in the first four years of her administration? Why does the president always speak in convoluted sentences that make no sense? Why did the president fly out of handle and sued a Japanese journalist who claimed that she was with Choi Soon-sil’s husband while the ferry Sewol was sinking in 2014, drowning 300 school children? Why did the ruling party randomly host a shamanistic ritual in the halls of the National AssemblyOhhhh, the relief went. Now it all makes sense.

But this brief relief soon gave way to the terrifying realization: actually, it does not make sense. None of this makes any sense.

In an ordinary case of political corruption, the politician is in it for himself. At most, the politician is doing it for his family, or other rich people who may end up helping him later. Obviously, corruption is bad. But this type of self-interested corruption at least gives some measure of predictability. We all know what self-interest looks like. Even though we would prefer that our politicians are not corrupt, at least we know how corrupt politicians behave.

But not with Park Geun-hye. Her corruption was not self-interested at all. If anything, her corruption was self-sacrificing in favor of Choi Soon-sil. Among the numerous revelations, I personally found this the most pathetic: Park Geun-hye gave Choi a sizable budget to purchase the presidential wardrobe, and Choi embezzled most of it. Instead of purchasing the clothes that befitted a head of state, Choi outfitted Park Geun-hye with crappy clothes that she had her cronies made with subpar material. There is a video of Choi’s staff smoking and drinking while eating fried chicken, right next to the suit meant for Park Geun-hye. At one point, one of the staffs handled the suit without even wiping chicken grease from his hands, while breathing smoke onto the clothes. Park Geun-hye would wear this suit on her presidential visit with Xi Jinping. For accessories, Choi gave Park the cheap leather purses and clutches that her gigolo designed. This could not have possibly escaped Park’s notice. Even assuming the unlikely possibility Park Geun-hye might not have had the discernment to know firsthand (unlikely because she grew up in the lap of luxury,) the obvious cheapness of Park’s clothes and bags even made the news. Yet nothing came of it. Choi Soon-sil dressed Park Geun-hye liked an unwanted doll, and Park, the president of the country, did not care.

Even in her apology, Park Geun-hye showed that she still might be under Choi Soon-sil’s hold. What would a self-interested politician would do, if the corruption of one of his cronies was revealed? The politician would sell the crony down the river, denying up and down that he ever knew or interacted with the crony. Such denial would be cowardly and dishonest, but at least it is predictable. But not with Park Geun-hye. She stood in front of the whole country and admitted that Choi Soon-sil fixed her speeches. Instead of cutting ties with her, Park reaffirmed that Choi was an old friend who helped her during difficult times.

This is utterly irrational. Rational people can expect that a corrupt politician may steal money for himself. They can even expect that he may steal for his family. But no one can expect that a corrupt politician would steal money for a daughter of a fucking psychic who claimed to speak with her dead mother. No one, not even the most cynical Korean, expects that the president would refuse to cut ties with Choi Soon-sil, a woman with no discernible talent other than manipulating the president and humiliating her in the process. Koreans may expect that the president would be corrupt, but they never could have expected that the president might be feeble in her mind.

In the Tyson Zone

Sports columnist Bill Simmons coined the term “Tyson Zone,” in which nothing you hear about a particular celebrity can possibly surprise you. Did you hear that Mike Tyson urinated on a police officer? Of course he did! Did you hear that Mike Tyson is attempting to breed unicorns? Of course he is! Given what you already know about Mike Tyson, none you hear about Mike Tyson could possibly surprise you.

With Choi Soon-sil-gate, Park Geun-hye put the entire country into the Tyson Zone. Every insane rumor about the president–the kind that you would see from some remote corner of the internet and laugh off–is now fair game. For years, there have been rumors that the name of Park’s political party, the Saenuri Party, is a code name for a cult named shincheonji. Well, why not? We already know that Choi Soon-sil was the one who actually produced Park’s inauguration, which featured numerous little multi-colored bags that are used for shamanistic rituals. Would it really surprise you Park Geun-hye named her party after a cult? Did you hear that Choi Soon-sil may have had a hidden son who worked at the presidential residence? Well, why not? We already know Choi made her personal trainer into a presidential aide–what’s another hidden son?

This much sounds like a joke, but it can easily take a terrifying turn. There has been much speculation about the “missing seven hours,” where the president’s whereabouts were completely unknown for seven hours in 2014 during the Sewol ferry disaster. Rumors are now running rampant that Park Geun-hye was attending a memorial shamanistic ritual for Choi Tae-min, who passed away 20 years on the day of the ferry disaster. The more lurid version of the rumor says that Park’s government actually caused the Sewol sinking, to offer human sacrifice for the dead cult leader. As ridiculous as these rumors are, Park Geun-hye’s behavior forces even reasonable people to think, maybe.

Even the way forward is not entirely clear. Politically, Park Geun-hye is finished, although it is unlikely that she would resign or be impeached. She would not resign because she fundamentally lacks the capacity to assess the reality around her. The opposition would not bother with the impeachment–they would prefer to let the administration bleed with non-stop investigation, until the presidential election comes next year.

But remember that we are now in the Tyson Zone, where everything is fair game. Choi Soon-sil is still on the run, and she still may be able to get in touch with the president. Even a politically finished president has a few remaining options to short-circuit the political process, and this president does not seem to have the instinct for self-preservation when it comes to Choi. I don’t want to actually write out what Park Geun-hye might do, because the mere thought of them sends chills down my spine. But I cannot get those thoughts out of my head, because they are no longer ridiculous. My worst nightmares for Korea’s democracy are now a realistic possibility. This is the shock that the Korean people are experiencing now.

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Park Geun Hye Group Accused of Their Moves to Suppress Progressive Persons of Literature and Arts

Rodong Sinmun http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2016-10-22-0003

Oct. 22, Juche 105 (2016) Saturday

A spokesman for the Central Committee of the General Federation of the Unions of Literature and Arts of Korea released a statement Friday in connection with the disclosure of the fact that the Park Geun Hye group of south Korea worked out a blacklist aimed at suppressing progressive persons of literature and arts and sent it to a ministry.

According to data available, the blacklist worked out by Chongwadae at the instruction of Park Geun Hye includes those who signed the declaration on the retraction of the “enforcement ordinance of the government for ferry Sewol” and those who supported the declaration on situation for the ferry disaster and those who supported candidates from opposition parties and independent candidates in the past puppet presidential elections and the election of the mayor of Seoul, 9 473 in all.

It was reported that by sending the blacklist to the puppet Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and its affiliated bodies Park Geun Hye and her group branded progressive persons of literature and arts as “dangerous elements” and conducted “political inspection” of their literary and art activities, persecuting them by way of cutting off “governmental aid fund” at the first phase.

This is an undisguised violation of expression of free will and legitimate right and unpardonable human rights abuse against the south Korean persons of literature and arts, the statement said, and went on:
The recently disclosed indiscriminate and illegal suppression of them by Park is just a tip of iceberg as it was prompted by her sinister intention to check the south Korean people’s ever-mounting actions against the “government” and ensure the fascists’ long-term office.

The situation goes to prove that it is hard to expect the guarantee of free will of literary and art persons and their activities and achieve the long-cherished social progress as long as Park Geun Hye and her group are allowed to remain in power.

The Park group should clearly understand that they have no future, however desperate they become in suppressing justice.

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A memoir: Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee and I


Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee hold a press conference upon their escape from North Korea to the United States in 1986. / Korea Times file

Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee hold a press conference upon their escape from North Korea to the United States in 1986. / Korea Times file

By An Hong-kyoon

My phone rang. The caller was the press officer at the Korean Embassy in Washington. “Mr. Shin Sang-ok and Ms. Choe Eun-hee are scheduled to hold a press conference. Our embassy wants you to act as their interpreter. Would you do it for us?”

Elated by the surprise request, I replied to him in one breath. “Of course I will.”

“The Watergate Hotel conference room at ten in the morning of the15th [May, 1986],” the press officer continued in a relaxed voice, obviously relieved that I had accepted his request. “More than a hundred American and foreign reporters are expected to attend the press conference.”

My thoughts ran back to the January, 1978 media report that Choe Eun-hee, whom her fans dubbed the “Liz Taylor of Korea,” mysteriously disappeared in Hong Kong. In July of the same year, her estranged husband and the renowned film director, Shin Sang-ok, disappeared, also last seen in Hong Kong. Several years passed and people learned that they were in North Korea, making movies for Kim Jong-il. Kim boasted that Shin and Choe came to North Korea on their own volition. In the mid-1980’s, Shin and Choe showed up in cities like London and Belgrade, and their words and demeanor appeared to attest, beyond question, their allegiance to Kim Jong-il.

Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee pose as they enter South Korea in May 1989.

Then there was a bombshell. On March 13, 1986, the world learned that Shin and Choe had sought refuge in the American Embassy in Vienna, Austria. For over two months thereafter, people heard nothing.

Then came the May 12 call from the Korean Embassy. I could hardly believe my fortune. I would hear their story, tell the world their story, and above all, I would meet them in person.

Then the day arrived. I sat with the Shin couple in a small ante-room adjacent to the main hall. They were charming, but their smiles were stiff and wary. The subdued air was intensified by the presence of two white bodyguards towering behind them. I wondered momentarily if their press conference was voluntary.

As we entered the conference room, cameras flashed, and a large crowd of reporters rushed about, vying for better spots. Following a brief photo session, the conference began with many questions flying all at once. Shin gestured them to calm down. Choe would tell them her story first.

The couple appears on a Japanesemedia outlet in1984

She began by narrating the scene of her abduction. A group of men grabbed and placed her on a speed boat in Repulse Bay of Hong Kong. She screamed, “Where are you taking me?”

“To Kim Il-sung’s bosom!” one abductor shot back. She used the Korean word, Pum, a word that is reminiscent of the warm heart of a mother.

“Kim Il-sung’s what?” a reporter in the front row shouted.

Alarmed by the question, I repeated, “Kim’s bosom.” Suddenly a question flit through my head. “Does bosom refer only to female breasts?”

Choe continued, in minute detail, of her life in captivity in North Korea. In turn, Shin did the same as if to convince the world that, contrary to some rumors and Pyongyang’s claims, they had been taken to North Korea against their will.

People read stories on the couple’s escape from North Korea, which appeared in the Hankook Ilbo in 1986.
/ Korea Times

As the long narrations continued, the American reporters grew impatient. They wanted to hear about Kim Jong-il and what the Shin couple had thought of the North Korean dictator. If those reporters expected slanderous and quotable words from them about Kim Jong-il, they were disappointed. Shin and Choe did not attack the person of Kim. When pressed, Choe said Kim Jong-il was a man capable of committing “stupendous” acts. No reporter asked them if they feared Kim Jong-il’s reprisal. Or if they felt they were indebted to their captor for the generous treatment the evil man had bestowed on them.

The press conference lasted three hours. Two security guards reappeared from nowhere, and director Shin and Choe were hurried to a dark van. I hardly had time to say goodbye to them.

Seven months later, I received a Christmas card from them with a pleasant greeting. Although the card was postmarked Atlanta, Georgia, I later learned that the couple had actually been living in a townhouse all this while in Reston, VA, my own neighborhood.

Then there was a call from Shin on a spring day in 1988. They had decided to move to Hollywood to pursue film production careers in America. “Would you be available for dinner tomorrow?” He suggested a Chinese restaurant in our area.

When my wife and I arrived at the restaurant, Shin and Choe were already seated at a table far inside the spacious dining room, discreetly apart from other diners. Both looked bright and carefree. Their regained freedom had done wonders for the charming couple, letting their guard down finally.

“Sorry we had to wait for so long to meet you again,” Shin began apologetically. “We had to ponder about our future, what to do, where to live, and how.” He paused for a moment. “American friends had suggested we live in seclusion ― in retirement, and I almost decided to do just that. I thought of painting.” He paused again. “But Choe yeosa thought otherwise.” Yeosa is a Korean term for “lady” or “Madame.” I got the hint: she wanted to be addressed as yeosa, signifying her independence. “Choe yeosa insisted that we stay in America and make movies, and I agreed.” Shin smiled at his lovely wife. I thought it was more on the part of Choe yeosa who had engineered their bold escape from the North.

Shin said he knew the Korean people would wonder why he and his wife would choose America for home. “Of course we love Korea and want to go home, and our fans want us to come home.” But he said, “We are not comfortable with the Korean authorities. Shortly after we had sought refuge in the American Embassy, the Seoul government said it would leniently embrace us back to Korea. Leniency for what? We were taken to North Korea by force, and the South Korean government had the nerve to treat us as if we were North Korean collaborators.” Shin spoke calmly, but his indignation was scarcely concealed.

In an even tone, Shin continued. “We are not safe in South Korea. North Korean agents roam the streets of Seoul at will. Kim Jong-il once boasted to us that he could bring anyone he requested to Pyongyang from Seoul.” With a deep sigh, he said, “And Kim Jong-il has set millions of dollars on our heads.”

There was a pause as we munched sweet-and sour pork. Shin turned his head toward his wife. “Choe yeosa, when I saw you for the first time in Pyongyang at Kim Jong-il’s party, I thought you had completely sold your soul out to the little, bushy-haired dictator. You behaved so fresh with him.”

“Are you kidding?” Choe mischievously retorted. “People don’t call me Korea’s best actress for nothing.” We all laughed together.

I turned to her. “Madame Choe, I saw you for the first time in Daegu during the Korean War. You were playing Ophelia on stage.”

“Oh, you did?. I was a green novice then, and I hardly knew what I was playing. I had a role in Death of a Salesman, and I had no idea what mortgage meant in the script.”

While travelling in Eastern Europe, Choe continued, they had come across a tiny Catholic church. “We entered it and got married…with a solemn ceremony.”

“Over my objection,” Shin quipped, “I don’t believe in such formalities.” He looked at her with a smile that betrayed his ritualistic adherence to his creed.

The conversation turned to their plan for Hollywood. Shin had a lifelong dream to produce an epic movie on Genghis Kahn. One of his proposed desert battle scenes would employ over 3,000 horses, a record in motion picture history. He had written the script based on Aaoki Okami ― The Blue Wolf ― authored by Yasushi Inoue of Japan.

“Sitting up straight in the prison cells, I went over the script hundreds of times in my head, writing and polishing it mentally. The North Korean jailers had laughed at me when I requested a pen and paper.”

Shin was inspired by a character in the story, Quryang, a maiden warrior who, risking her life, withstood Genghis Khan’s attempt to take her by force. She triumphed when the Great Khan begged her for her love.

Over dessert, Shin abruptly asked me if I was familiar with General Dean. I told him I knew who the general was. Shin said his first project in Hollywood would be General Dean’s story, the anti-hero hero commanding general of the ill-fated U.S. 24th Infantry Division, that was smashed by columns of the North Korean Army in Daejeon.

Retreating soldiers reported that General Dean was last seen at a city crossroads with a bazooka on his shoulder¸ facing an approaching enemy tank. He then disappeared for many months. President Truman awarded him a medal of honor in absentia. In December, 1951, the world learned that the general had been held as a POW in the North. He returned home to a hero’s welcome after the armistice. He denied he was a hero.

“There is little information about his captivity in North Korea,” Shin said.

Oh, yes, I replied. General Dean had written an autobiography. I would find a copy, I promised Shin. I also told him that the current commanding general of the U.S. forces in Korea was an old acquaintance of mine. I had first met him in 1958 when he served in Korea as a green platoon leader. He is now a full general. He would gladly provide us with all the resources and assistance ― foot soldiers, tanks and bazookas. Shin’s face lit up with excitement.

It appeared that the move would be Shin’s way of returning the favor to the American establishment which had embraced Shin and Choe since their dash to the American Embassy in Vienna and were now providing a refuge from Kim Jong-il.

Walking toward the parking lot, Shin told me that after settling in Hollywood, he and Choe would travel to Seoul. They had to appear before a court and settle their legal case. After all, they had been in North Korea and had helped Kim Jong-il make movies in clear violation of the South Korean National Security Law. All had been pre-arranged, Shin said, and they would be given Korean passports, signifying their complete freedom at last. Nothing would then hamper their future, nothing, he appeared to reaffirm himself.

Waving at their automobile as they drove off, I wondered what Hollywood looked like.

In the late Fall of 1988, Shin wrote me a letter. He and Choe had settled in a Los Angeles suburb. I noticed that Shin signed his name Sheen Sang-okk. I later learned that the new name spelling had been advised by certain U.S. intelligence officials as a security measure.

Several months later, I wrote Shin that I had discovered where General Dean’s son, William, Jr., a retired Army colonel, lived.

In the spring of 1989, Shin and I met Colonel Dean at a hotel restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. He was an unassuming gentleman with a ready smile. He listened carefully to my account of Shin’s captivity in North Korea. While I had no way of fathoming his thoughts, he surely would have thought of his own father’s incarceration in the North as a POW. Colonel Dean was delighted with Shin’s plan to produce his father’s story, and was happy to transfer the copyright of his father’s book. We all shook hands and parted. A contract would be drafted and signed in due time.

The following month, Korean media reported that Shin and Choe had arrived at Kimpo Airport in Seoul to a tumultuous welcome by his fans. Customs inspectors found in their possession a large amount of material on the Korean War.

“They are for General Dean’s story,” I assured myself.

Then in the late fall of the year, I learned from a newspaper account that Shin, in Korea at the time, had announced a plan to produce a new film, Mayumi, in Korea. There was no mention about General Dean’s story. I was puzzled at first. Why the change of heart? Betrayal! I thought.

“Mayumi” was a code name for a young North Korean female terrorist who blew up Korean airliner in midair over the Indian Ocean. Again, what prompted Shin to change his plan? I could only speculate: a certain powerful element, most likely a South Korean intelligence establishment whose wishes Shin was not in a position to resist was behind it, and with ample funds. Eventually, Mayumi was produced. It turned out to be a box-office dud in Korea and overseas.

Another year passed. In September of 1990, I received a fax from Shin. A wealthy Japanese businessman had promised to invest in the production of The Blue Wolf: the Genghis Khan Story. “Please join me,” he wrote. “I know how to make movies but I know nothing about America. And you have a passion for the arts and a knack for motion pictures. I would expect you to run the office American style.”

Without a second thought, I told my wife that I was going to Hollywood. “You are crazy,” she cried out. I packed up and headed for Dulles Airport. My wife, behind the wheel, did not say much.

Shin and Choe lived in a small but attractive house in Beverly Hills. Its front yard was full of roses. An elderly maid, whom the Shins had brought from Korea, moved around like a family matriarch. There were two adorable children playing. They seemed to be deeply attached to the maid. They were the offspring of one Oh Su-mi, once Shin’s actress lover. The maid had raised the two toddlers while their father, Shin, spent eight years in North Korea. Choe was now their surrogate mother, and the children looked at their “stepmother” bashfully.

Shin delegated to me the power to sign bank checks for the office, a sure sign that he trusted me. But when I requested an employment contract, Shin declined. “We work together with an honor-bound trust, not by a signed paper.” That was not a good sign. I suggested that we retain a law firm, a public accountant, and a PR firm. Shin objected on the grounds that we did not have legal problems, we did not have any income presently, and a PR firm would be expensive. I told him that that was the “American way” to run a business. He did not answer. I took it as his acquiescence and retained a law firm, and so on. Shin instructed me to deny health coverage for office employees, but I did arrange coverage for them. If there were signs of discord between us, I did not sense it at that time.

Shin was a reticent, secretive person. He shared little with me about himself, his intentions, and what he expected of me. I wondered if this was his personality, or the result of the trials he had suffered in North Korea. He kept me in the dark about the details of his production plans. He shared little information with me about his Japanese patron and the investment the latter had promised.

Yet at certain unguarded moments, he told me revealing things. He considered North Korea a haven for film makers. Kim Jong-il provided everything, money, cast and staff, location sites, even a cargo train to blow up, and a helicopter to fly over to create snow-storm scenes. Above all, one did not have to worry about the prospect of box-office success. An audience would be mobilized, and told when to cheer.

“You know,” he once said over lunch, “I chiseled my name on the wall of my cell just to mark that I was there.” I recalled a scene from The Count of Monte Cristo. “I hope they don’t raze the prison.”

Shin remarked with an impish smile.

“When I went overseas, my minders wanted me to bring them gifts. The souvenir items most craved were sunglasses. I wondered if those bastard comrades wanted to look like Kim Jong-il.”

In mid-November of 1990, Shin and I traveled to Calgary, Canada, to look for location sites for a cavalry battle scene for Genghis Khan. The final cavalry charge scene of Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa of Japan was previously shot in the open field of Calgary. “Kagemusha” meant “a body double” for a warlord. Calgary, however, was dropped because, besides its cost estimates, its topography hardly resembled that of the Great Steppes of Central Asia.

Mongolia, seemingly the best location site for The Blue Wolf, was out of the question. The Mongolian government would not allow a motion picture about its greatest khan drift one inch from its official history. Quyrang, the khan’s warrior-lover did not exist in the orthodox Mongol history as The Blue Wolf script portrayed her.

In the spring of the same year, Shin flew to Tokyo to confer with his Japanese investor. He looked content when he returned. One day soon after, Shin told me with a straight face. “I chose Natasha Kinski for Quyrang’s role.” He continued, “And I want you to go to Italy and meet with Sophia Loren. Tell her we need her for the role of Genghis Khan’s mother.”

I was dumbstruck. The task Shin purported to assign me was nothing like asking a movie star for an autograph. “Is this man serious?” I thought to myself. Did this man make a hollow commitment in order to placate his Japanese patron? To my relief, Shin never brought up the subject again.

Then Shin said he wanted to explore Tajikistan for locations. It was one of such occasions when the director spelled out brilliant ideas as if in passing. Besides the cost factor, the Central Asian region provided an excellent environment. After all, Genghis Khan and his horde rampaged and conquered the desert and steppes of Central Asia. In early 1991, the mysterious and closed land was wide open, thanks to Gorbachev’s perestroika.

I called the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC and spoke with a representative of Sovexporfilm, the Russian state corporation charged with film trade. Through his good offices, his Moscow headquarters sent a letter of invitation for Shin, Choe and me. The Soviet Consulate in DC quickly issued us our visas. Russians were eager to do business with the capitalist world.

Choe, however, was not allowed to go. Her fervent desire to travel together with Shin to Russia had been quashed by the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles. Why was anyone’s guess.

I traveled to Moscow on February 9, 1991 and met with Boris, a lawyer from Sovexportfilm, who was our contact man and escort throughout our travels in the Soviet Union.

The following day, Shin arrived at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. He was one of the last passengers to show up at the waiting area. Wearing a pair of sunglasses and a hat tipped way down, he walked in our direction quietly. Shin and I sat down on a corner bench while Boris went outside to hail a taxi. Shin, his head bowed down, did not stir. My heart started to pound faster and faster. What could I do if North Korean agents and their KGB comrades surrounded us? There was prize money on Shin’s head, and North Korea had been in the Soviet orbit until recently.

I noticed a tall and well-built Asian man in a long and loose trench coat and wearing a hunting cap walking briskly toward us. My heart froze. Shin remained motionless. I stood up. The man handed me his business card: First Secretary J.H. Choi, Embassy, the Republic of Korea. “Welcome to Moscow. Our ambassador would be happy to meet with you tomorrow.” He walked away. He looked like a core intelligence officer.

The following day, the first South Korean ambassador to Russia, and my high school classmate, greeted us cordially, but Shin appeared distant to our host. Meeting alone with me in his office, First Secretary Choi stressed that I stay in touch with him wherever Shin and I traveled. “Nothing to worry,” he assured me. When we parted, Shin failed to bow back to Choi.

Our two-day meeting with the executives of Sovexportfilm was pleasant and productive. They appeared sincere and eager to do business with us. Their figures for all the logistic support for our film was less than one-third that of Calgary’s. One executive suggested in jest that a Red Army cavalry regiment could be mobilized for combat scenes. Shin nonchalantly answered he would study the offer.

During a tea break, Shin asked if a replica of the best actress prize for the 1985 Moscow film festival could be made. The award Choe had won for her role in the North Korean film Salt had to be left behind in Pyongyang when they fled to the West. He was told that that could not be done.

Our first stop was Alma Ata, present day Almaty, of Kazakhstan. The city had a large ethnic Korean community. Obviously pre-warned by the South Korean embassy, several leaders of the Korean community came to our hotel to pay a courtesy call to Shin. They identified themselves with South Korea and praised Shin for his heroic escape from the North.

Our next destination was Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the famed hub of the ancient tea trade along the silk road. During the flight, I struck up a conversation with an Uzbek who sat next to me. When he heard the purpose of my trip, his expression turned incredulous. “Genghis Khan of all people, why?” he asked me. “You know, he burnt down our city in 1219. His soldiers killed our noblemen by breaking their spines by bending them backward.” He grew angrier. “Do you know what that evil khan and his hordes left behind? Ashes and their semen in the wombs of our women.” He turned his back on me.

Rhaman, the director of Vatan Film Studio greeted us in the Tashkent airport. Vatan was the best-known film producer in the region. We toured his studio, huge but run down. Its warehouse was full of art work, film sets, and props, mostly of bows and armors. Shin again did not say much, and he showed little interest in what he was seeing. Strange, I thought.

In the evening, Rhaman took us to an ethnic Korean festival entitled Transit, a musical that portrayed the story of ethnic Koreans being forcibly removed from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia in the mid-1930s. When an MC announced Shin’s presence, many people flocked to greet him. Elderly women hugged him. Shin was their hero, and he personified the image of their ancestral home called Korea. He tranquilized the nostalgia of the Korean diaspora.

The following day, Rhaman drove us eastward near the Afghan border to trace the routes that Genghis Khan’s Mongol horsemen had rampaged. Suddenly, Boris shook Rhaman’s shoulder. “Hey, we are in Kyrgyzstan. We have no visas to enter here.” Rhaman did not flinch and kept on driving. He couldn’t care less about what the Kremlin said. Moscow’s grip on its citizens was apparently waning fast. Indeed, the Soviet Union would fall half a year later.

Soon, the snow-covered Tian Shan Mountain range came into view. The Mongol’s ancestral spirits dwelled on the summits. Its sheer majesty humbled me. We all got out of the car and sipped the ice-cold water from the stream at the bottom of the steep-walled valley. Shin remained in the car, his head bowed and pensive. What was he thinking? I wondered.

In Bukhara, we saw gigantic mud-brick walls. A good location site for a cavalry assault, Rhaman suggested to Shin. Shin smiled back meekly. In town, we visited a timeworn mosque mantled in a rich patina of age. “This mosque,” intoned a village elder, “was saved from the Mongol invaders. We buried it underground before they came.” We were told, ad nauseam, of the Mongol atrocities in Urgenchi, Khiwa and other towns we visited. The Great Khan certainly was not popular in this part of the world.

Back at Vatan Film Studio in Tashkent, Rhaman and Boris wanted to hear from Shin. Would there be a contract for the production of The Blue Wolf? Shin was noncommittal. I was not surprised by his reaction. Throughout the trip, Shin remained aloof to the mission he had set out for. He acted more like a bored tourist.

We flew from Moscow to Tokyo and met with the Japanese investor. Shin told his patron that the trip to Russia had been highly productive. He had found excellent location spots and had nearly reached a contract agreement with the Russians.

The Japanese investor did not seem convinced.

Back in the Hollywood office, my misgivings about Shin and his intentions deepened. A disturbing thought lingered in my mind: Was Shin genuinely serious about producing The Blue Wolf film? Yes, at least in the beginning, I concluded. He envisioned producing a Hollywood epic. He fondly talked about Elia Kazan, John Ford, and Robert Wise. He liked to be compared with Akira Kurosawa. He believed his Genghis Khan was his raison d’etre. It deserved an Oscar.

However, his dream ended as just that, a dream. The funds he was promised shrank rapidly as Japan’s economic bubble burst. He discovered that the sheer scale of his imagined production outweighed his ability.

Shin was angry and disheartened, but his ego was too big to forsake his dream. So he kept on acting, literally acting. He was in denial about pursuing a phantom objective.

I decided that there would be no The Blue Wolf, ever. One day in mid-May, 1991, I tendered my resignation to Shin. He replied that he would not stop me from leaving.

I packed and returned home to Virginia.

Taehwa Market in Ulsan is flooded after typhoon Chaba struck the region, Wednesday. The typhoon caused five deaths with one person missing, as well as property damage on Jeju Island and southern coastal areas. Yonhap

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Open letter to the people of Busan supporting the work of Busan International Film Festival Director Lee Yongkwan

Tony Rayns

As one of BIFF’s foreign advisors, I’ve spent the past year in London watching events in Busan with mounting disbelief. My incredulity began when Busan Metropolitan City Council demanded that a documentary essay-film about the Sewol ferry disaster should be withdrawn from the 2014 festival. When the festival very properly rejected this interference in its programme selection, the City Council stepped up its attack by demanding the resignation of the festival’s director Lee Yongkwan.

Lee Yongkwan, Director of BIFF

Lee Yongkwan, Director of BIFF

And when Mr Lee very properly refused to resign, the national government suddenly decided that it needed to rethink its subsidies to Korea’s film festivals – and it was no doubt entirely coincidental that this entailed making a drastic cut to its support for BIFF. And then, in December, the City Council launched a criminal prosecution of Mr Lee for alleged fraud, citing “irregularities” in his handling of fees paid to sponsorship brokers. It’s reported in the film-trade magazine Screen Daily that the City Council has made it known privately that it will drop the charge if Mr Lee resigns.

There’s an old English saying: “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. It means doing damage to yourself in an effort to prove yourself right. This old phrase seems remarkably relevant to Busan City Council – and, presumably, to its political friends in the presidential Blue House.

I first visited Busan in 1995 at the invitation of Mr Kim Dongho and his team, who were then busy trying to create Korea’s first film festival. Mr Kim asked me to meet the city’s mayor and some councillors to explain to them (from the point of view of a foreigner who works with both films and film festivals) what a film festival is and why I thought they should support the BIFF project. The then-mayor Mr Moon asked me some pointed questions and I did my best to answer them clearly and persuasively. As we know, the city council did eventually decide to support the festival, and it was launched in 1996.

I’ve been back to Busan every year since then, some years more than once, and have watched both the festival and the city grow. Obviously the city would have grown and developed anyway in the last twenty years; the whole of the country has been transformed since the end of military governments. But I don’t think it can be disputed that BIFF has been one the main engines of the city’s growth. By basing itself in Haeundae, the festival prompted major improvements to the city’s transport infrastructure: a subway-line extension, a bridge across the bay. By attracting countless foreign visitors, the festival helped turn the city from a rather dingy and parochial port into a spectacular, cosmopolitan metropolis. The name “Busan” was known to few people around the world twenty years ago, but it’s now known to many millions – and that, too, is largely due to the festival. Such changes are worth vastly more to the Korean economy than the government and city council have spent on subsidising the festival.

This is why I’m incredulous: the government and city council seem hell-bent on damaging one of Korea’s proudest and most cost-effective achievements. Is that what they were elected to do? Are voters happy about the tactics and actions of their elected officials? It seems incredible to me.

Looking at this situation from Western Europe, on the other side of the world, I’m obviously not going to comment on the legal issues. Those are matters for Korea’s own cultural bureaucrats and lawyers. But the events of the past year raise two big questions which are universal, and I’d like to modestly express my thoughts about both.

The first is the question of competence and professionalism in the running of the film festival. It’s transparently clear that the Busan Metropolitan City Council’s problem with Mr Lee Yongkwan is political. The current council is right-wing, and it sees Mr Lee as its political enemy. It takes this political opposition as a valid reason to try to force Mr Lee out of his job. The council must think that Mr Lee could easily be replaced with someone more to their liking: someone who would not protest against political interference in the programme choices. This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen bureaucrats thinking this way in many other countries, including my own. But this kind of thinking is hopelessly ignorant of the way that festivals need to be run and need to interact with their audience, both at home and abroad.

Big film festivals are complex institutions. At the most basic level, they need to find the right balance between film as a business and film as an artform – or between the interests of the film industry and the cultural specificity of the medium itself. This means being able to talk to both business people (producers, financiers, distributors) and creative people (directors, writers, actors) in terms that they understand and respect. This perhaps sounds easy enough, but it’s not: understanding the aesthetics of cinema is often not compatible with the nuts and bolts of getting films financed and shown. It’s quite rare to find a festival director and a programming team who are competent to have both kinds of conversations. BIFF has been lucky to be led by Kim Dongho and his successor Lee Yongkwan.

Festivals also need to strike the right balance between the domestic and the foreign, and between crowd-pleasing populism and specialist interests. The days when “cinema” was easy to grasp are long gone, along with Hollywood cinema’s one-time automatic dominance in the world market. “Cinema” now means many things to many audiences. Some viewers want glossy entertainments which give them emotional and experiential kicks, but others prefer more thoughtful and refined films which are more obviously artful. And some are most interested in documentaries, or animation, or experimental films, or even films which cross the boundaries between the movie-theater and the art-gallery. From the very start, BIFF has been sensitive to the differing needs of its many audiences, and has explored all areas of filmmaking with commitment and enthusiasm.

Of course, the obligation to be both generalist and specialist extends to political matters too. I never thought I would agree with film director Park Chanwook about anything, but he was absolutely correct to point out that it was the city council’s attempt to block the screening of the Sewol ferry documentary which made the issue political, not the festival’s initial decision to choose it for the programme. The documentary was one of some 300 films screened by BIFF in 2014, and screening it did not imply that the festival was promoting the film more than other documentaries, or that the festival director and staff endorsed the film’s point of view. It’s very simple: the festival’s job is to present many points of view, some of which will inevitably seem contentious or offensive to some people. That’s how democracies work.

Thinking about the city council’s concerted attacks on Lee Yongkwan, I can’t help being reminded of the last time that selfish and narrow-minded politicians interfered in the running of a Korean film festival. Does anyone else remember the disaster of the Chungmuro Film Festival in Seoul, hijacked by politicians for what they thought was their own interest? That festival died in its infancy, unable to survive the conflicting pulls of politicians who thought that they could use it to promote themselves and their political parties.

If Busan Metropolitan City Council were to succeed in forcing Lee Yongkwan to resign, what would happen next? No doubt some opportunist hack could be persuaded to take on the job of festival director, even if it entails constant grovelling to the city council, but many of the festival staff – including the specialist programmers, for sure – would resign in sympathy with Mr Lee, leaving the shiny new director to build a new team of fellow-opportunists. At the same time, BIFF’s many friends around the world would boycott the festival, probably also orchestrating a campaign of protest against the city council’s political stupidity. Many filmmakers would refuse to supply their films, journalists and critics would stop taking the film programme seriously – and BIFF would soon go the same way as the Chungmuro Festival. As I said, this is “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. Is that really what Korea’s right-wing politicians want? Do they think that these tactics will endear them to the film community at home and abroad? Do they sincerely care at all about Korea’s status as a constitutional democracy?

These considerations bring me to the second big question raised by what’s been happening in Busan. Korean politics changed profoundly in 1993 when the late Kim Youngsam was elected president, and so did Korean society and the Korean economy. Almost everything that we think of as characteristic of modern Korea has developed since 1993, from the global fame of Korean film and television to the country’s ultra-fast broadband network. At the same time, Korea has become a genuinely pluralist society. Women and minority groups have made their voices heard as never before, the lowering of trade barriers has given Korean consumers access to foreign products and culture as never before, and political differences have been debated openly. These are all hallmarks of a modern democracy. They were worth fighting for, and they are worth defending.

Here’s a brief anecdote from my own experience. One of my closest Korean friends studied film-making in London and found himself dissatisfied with the standard of teaching at the school. His graduation film was an attack on the school. It included documentary sequences in which fellow-students discussed the shortcomings of some of their teachers by name. It ended with a fantasy scene in which the protagonist dynamited the school building. The question arose: would the school include this film in its graduate screenings? Yes, it did screen the film. The school’s director told me that some members of his staff had objected, but he felt it was important to give the graduating student his voice. He didn’t run away from the criticism, as a coward would, but instead faced up to it.

I had very little first-hand knowledge of the “dark days” under military governments in Korea (my first visit to the country was in 1988, when the worst was over), but I know from Russia, China and Singapore amongst other countries how authoritarian governments work. They don’t believe in debate and don’t tolerate opposing points of view. Their first instinct is not to meet opposition with counter-arguments but to silence it. When Busan Metropolitan City Council tells BIFF not to screen a documentary that’s critical of the government, it’s a textbook example of an attack on free speech and an impulse to silence opposing voices. Apparently Korea’s right-wing politicians haven’t noticed or understood the changes since 1993. Apparently they are nostalgic for the “dark days” of censorship, of silencing dissenting voices and of strict social control. I’ve always thought that Korea has a very bright future, and I’ve said so in public many times, but the pig-headed political tactics of Busan’s city council mark a step back into the past. It makes no sense to me.

Tony Rayns

Tony Rayns is a London-based film-maker, writer, critic and festival programmer with a long held interest in the films of East Asia. He has been a program consultant to the Busan International Film Festival since its inception.

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