Musings on Migration, Labour, Politics, Dissent etc.
(Translation by David McCann)
For some time now, in the heart of Seoul
they have heard the strangest sound.
Some people quake like aspen leaves
and sweat freezing streams at this sound . . .
A strange business; and stranger still,
these are guys with money, the real
—There, that sound.
A canister of tear gas bursting?
The war starting? An A-bomb
exploding? A Hirohito fart? Nixon’s cough?
The Red Army salute guns greeting big-noses
in T’ien-An-Men Square?
No? Then what?
There, do you hear it?
Does anyone know the story, where
the sound of that K’ung came from?
Listen to the people, and you shall hear
the story of a sound.
It wasn’t in Russia, China, Japan,
or America either, but here in Korea,
the eastern part of Seoul,
where the dust swarms up in Ch’ongyangni,
and beyond it lie the coal-black fluids
of Chongnang Brook.
Jammed together down its banks,
the squatter shacks perch in bunches wherever they fit,
rattling this way, trembling that
in the slightest breeze blowing by.
Way in the back of the darkest corner
of the most ramshackle shack
lived Ando, up from the country
to find his fortune.
Ando worked like an ox,
but was timid as a mouse, simple
as a sheep—the harmless sort
who doesn’t need laws to live right.
But some strange twist of fate,
some lousy inheritance from a previous life
made whatever he tried
It might start well, but it wouldn’t come out;
what looked good for a while just wouldn’t turn out.
How could he? He couldn’t find a girl friend.
Buy a house?
Not a chance. He couldn’t get the rent for a
He couldn’t find money for food, and if he looked
like he might get a job, well,
from this day to that day to the very next day
they kept putting him off till it went up in smoke.
“No backer? No go here.”
“No school tie? Nothing doing.”
“No deposit? No return.”
“No soup? No dessert.”
Without any money, and no one to help,
there wasn’t a deal he could start.
The shake-down artists shook him,
the rake-off operators raked him,
till not a thing was left.
He could yell all he pleased—it was no use.
Or fling himself down in a rage—no help.
He could struggle, kick, open his eyes wide
and glare all around, or just close them,
resigned to his fate:
it made no difference,
it was all the same, and no good.
He began to think of hanging himself,
but couldn’t find a rafter.
Gas wouldn’t do—the windows were full of holes.
He couldn’t slip away
on a mixture of poison and wine—
there was no money for a cup
and nothing else to use,
so no way, he had no way:
no way to rest, no way to put his feet
down on the ground and just stand.
Just once to have the guts
to stand up firm on his two feet
would have brought down a flood of accusations
for crimes never heard of before, never seen, never
So what else could he do? Spring summer
day and night, rushing from place to place
what did he get? Not a dog’s nose,
not a rat’s ass, not a blackbird’s belly.
He would rush to the front, then race to one side;
race to another side, and rush to the back,
stand on his hands,
drag himself drizzling shit.
If he earned ten won, a hundred was taken away;
earn a hundred, and lose a thousand.
Three-hundred-and-sixty-odd days, one after the other
without a break, first this guy, then that one:
guys with good connections, well-developed
greed and guile, the ones with gangs of cronies:
this one with “Official” stamped on his forehead,
that one with “Junior-Grade” on the bridge of his nose,
three times three makes nine, the plate goes
round and round;
the guy with “swindler” in his smiling eyes and nimble
the one with “Fraud! Fraud!” flashing from his golden
teeth . . .
Tortured, chewed, battered and bit, kicked, bloodied,
trampled into the ground;
even the tiny bit of money he had hidden away under his
for the journey back home was stripped away. He was
beaten shapeless as a bowl of mush,
half dead, a walking corpse, and then what? All over
“Enemy agent! Commie Flag!
But buy me some noodles and I’ll let you go.”
“No! Give me the training instead.”
“Control yourself! Where is your haircut?
Pay for the ticket and beat it!”
“But I can’t get a haircut; I don’t have the money.”
“You have to!”
“Unsightly shack! Settle up for the flies and get out!”
“But I rent by the month.”
“Three un’s and five no’s! Three fives is fifteen, so you
owe fifteen hundred!”
“But I haven’t had a meal in five days!”
“Pay up in advance! Settle your taxes! Your fines! Your
whatever is left!
“I’d rather jump in a cesspool and drown!”
“You’re not allowed to die!”
Rice money, clothes money, shoes money, medicine
money for pickles, money for soy sauce, money for
coal, de dum di di.
Add to this, add to this money
money for congratulations,
and add to this money
money for condolences,
and on top of this,
on top of this,
for the local officers,
on top of which,
the price of going back and forth,
on top of which,
the money lender,
on top of whom,
way, way on top, this and that,
add it up, and add it up,
until every which way, from bottom to top
Ando was wrapped up tight.
What was he to do? What else could he do
but race around frantically trying to earn a rat tail’s
Like a rabid dog in snow, or a tiger pup with its tail on
fire he raced round and round:
one foot up, the other down;
this one up, and that one down.
If he raised this foot, he put the other one down,
lower the foot and raise the other.
Veering this way, lurching that,
hop, hop; jump, jump,
at his frantic pace he sets out.
Chongno, Myongdong, Mugyodong, and Tadong:
real estate, insurance, finance office, trader’s;
he was an errand boy, office boy, janitor, watchman.
He went through each one once,
then on to Tongdungp’o, Sihung, Mallidong, and
textile factory, iron caster, sugar mill, clothes maker;
he was a factory hand, a furnace man, a dispatcher,
racing around trying this and trying that.
Then Kupabal, Ch’andong, Changanp’ypng, and
peddling stew in It’aewon, radish leaves in Tamsimni.
At South Gate he sold pigs’ bellies, and puffer eggs at
hoop-sticks at Kwanghwamun, silkworm larvae in
At construction sites he was a dirt carrier; on movie lots
he was an extra;
a delivery service go-fer.
Back and forth, right and left, helter-skelter, in his
puffing and panting, north south east west,
harried, exhausted, starving and sick, until crazed
one evening as the sun was going down
he planted his two feet down on the ground,
rolled his eyes back in his head and yelled
“Agh! What a dog’s life this is!”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than
Clankety-clank, heavy handcuffs were snapped on his
wrists and Ando was dragged straight off to court.
Bang, Bang, Bang . . .
“State the charge.”
“The crime, your honor, of standing on the ground with
and spitting out groundless rumors.”
“Oho! That’s a big one!”
“The defendant, by standing on the ground and spitting
rumors, your honor, is guilty of
the impertinent use of feet without proper
the upstart relaxation of the corporal being;
the crime of tranquilizing the mind without permit;
plotting to usurp and expropriate the fundamental
substance, in plain disregard of the defendant’s
the crime of wasting time in oafish cogitation;
the crime of harboring weak-willed thoughts of suicide;
being an idle bystander, as if he were some floating
looking up at the skies without shame;
tendentious expansion of the cranium;
the impudent trespass upon the special-class privilege of
the impertinent neglect of our national policies for
OF GOODS FOR EXPORT WITHOUT A
opposition to the THREE NO’s, the FIVE UN’s,
DON’Ts, and the NINE
the crime of thinking up GROUNDLESS RUMORS
would BEWITCH THE PEOPLE
and CONFUSE THE WORLD;
the intent to pronounce said rumors;
the pronouncing of the same;
the intent to propagate said rumors;
the propagation of same;
the crime of INSUFFICIENT VENERATION FOR
DENIGRATION OF THE MOTHER TONGUE:
comparing the fatherland to an animal;
the crime of making it possible for other countries to
of our fatherland as an animal,
thereby and in conjunction with DISTURBING
THE ENVIRONMENT FOR CAPITAL
the crime of promoting social disorder and instigating
the crime of agitating the people;
the crimes of pessimism, being weary of life, other-
providing comfort to the enemy;
harboring anti-system thoughts, and advocating
the crime of supporting by empathetic means the
establishment of an
anti-state organization or network or group;
the crime of promoting the clarification of personal self-
fostering in turn the development of spiritual and
ideological self-reliance which inevitably nurtures the
consciousness leading to anti- state riots;
in addition to which the defendant, for violating the
provisions of the special anti-antisocial
manipulation law, is hereby found guilty of all
crimes as charged. Therefore, in accordance with
the law, it is the solemn judgment of this court, that
immediately upon adjournment
one head be removed from the defendant
to prevent further thinking or pronouncing of such
two feet be cut off to forestall the
recurrence of inflammatory standing on the ground;
and to prevent the breeding of future
seditious types such as the defendant, that one
reproductive organ and two testicles be removed;
And finally and furthermore, whereas there is a clear
and present danger that defendant may resist, his two
hands are to be bound behind his back; he is to be
wrapped in one water-soaked leather straightjacket;
and the opening of his throat is to be jammed shut
a hard, thick, and long-lasting voice-blocking tool;
which he is to be put in solitary confinement for five
Bang, Bang, Bang.
“No, you can’t!”
“My thing’s gone! Don’t!”
My balls are gone! Stop! You can’t! Don’t!”
“My neck, my neck! Where ? . . . ”
“Oh no! Not my legs too, gone at a stroke!”
The arms are bound in back;
the leather jacket;
the voice-blocking tool shoved in tight . . .
And so, pitiless they threw poor Ando into the moss-
dark and dreary cell.
Shaa-Bang! The sound of locks, echoing farther
and farther away down the tunnels of the prison . . .
This can’t be! It can’t!
How can it be?
How can it?
Starving, in rags, I worked nearly to death;
Beaten and yelled at, I didn’t say a word.
No chance to rest, to sleep, even to lie down.
Then why has this happened?
What awful crime
has brought this unbearable punishment?
Oh geese flying so high!
You know what is inside me.
Tell me: where the millet stalks
reach their long shadows
though the heavy sunlight
by the newly-built road,
is my mother still standing,
waiting for me?
in clothes worn far past
their season, does her gaze
reach out, time and again
Dear mother, I shall return home;
return, even though I die.
Though my dead body be torn
in a thousand, ten thousand pieces,
I shall return.
Through this wall,
over the next,
even as a spirit
I shall pierce and vault
these red brick walls.
I shall return, mother;
even in death, I shall return.
Ando would have cried out this song,
but what tears, what voice did he have?
Without any tears or voice, deep within
each night he sang out his crimson, blood-red
No! No! NO!
roll your body,
beating with it
Again, and yet again
he slammed into the wall:
There were those who couldn’t sleep at all when they
heard that sound rising up,
people with money, the ones who could
blow the wind right by. They sent out their strict orders
to have that fellow executed,
It’s a strange business, how that sound seems to drive
some people mad.
You can hear it now, night and day, never ceasing.
There are some who call it the work of a ghost;
others will tell you it is Ando, somewhere
and ceaselessly hurling himself against the walls.
They say this stealthily, whispering from ear to ear,
while a strange light flashes from their eyes.
Born in 1941 in Mokp’o, a port town in South Cholla Province, and a graduate in fine arts of Seoul National University, Kim Chiha was perhaps the first Korean poet of the twentieth century to become well known outside of Korea. His reputation internationally was due more to his identity as an activist, dissident poet than for his literary works as such. Especially during the early 1970s, as the Park Chung Hee regime imposed increasingly severe restrictions on Korean political and social life, Kim’s acerbically witty satires caused the South Korean government increasing discomfort even as they delighted Korean readers. Kim was arrested, tried, and sentenced numerous times for his poems, for his activism, for his attitude. The Korean state’s campaign to find Kim guilty of a capital offense prompted an international outcry and counter-campaign to rescue the poet, much like the similar effort in 1975 when the Korean CIA had kidnapped the political opposition leader Kim Dae Jung from a Tokyo hotel and were preparing to murder him. “The Story of a Sound” is a representative example of Kim Chiha’s satirical narrative poems from the early 1970s, a lively adaptation of the p’ansori oral-narrative style displaying a satirical attitude toward state authority.
Source: David McCann edited “Colombia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry”; 2004