South Korea: Music and oppression in Korea in the 1970s



South Korea:
Music and oppression in Korea in the 1970s

“In the history of Korean music, the 1970s was the darkest era. So many songs were banned, and so many musicians had to give up music,” writes Kim Seon-joo in a column in The Hankyoreh where he describes the era in the background of the banned songs.

By Kim Seon-joo, journalist

Some people remember an era as a song. They can also talk of it as a beautiful memory. But there are other people who lived through the same era who cannot remember the era as only a song. This is because they are afraid to remember the world outside of the song. One TV entertainment show right before Chuseok told the tale of the 1960s music cafe ‘C’est si bon.’ Perhaps due to the episode’s popularity, it continued on the Seollal, Lunar New Year, holiday. My junior told me, ‘The C’est si bon story was interesting. Aren’t you also a part of the C’est si bon generation? Watch it.’

He was right. I am a member of the C’est si bon generation. The people who appeared on the show were all musicians of that era, and like many of the young people who went to university in Seoul in the 1960s, they all used to go to the classical music cafe ‘C’est si bon’ and ‘Renaissance,’ which was right across from it. Listening to them, however, I did not find their stories moving or interesting. Instead, it seemed like old wounds were being reopened.

In the history of Korean music, the 1970s was the darkest era. So many songs were banned, and so many musicians had to give up music. With ‘Let’s Go to a Happy Country,’ the authorities asked, ‘Isn’t this country a happy place?’ and they accused ‘That’s You’ of being about the Yusin Constitution. They accused the gestures of a female singer of being a form of communication with North Korea, and with ‘Come Back,’ they asked, ‘Who are you telling to come back?’ They asked, ‘Why is that red,’ ‘Why is the light turned off,’ and ‘Why is the pond small.’ The 1970s were the darkest era in Korean music history because they were the darkest era in Korean modern history. At the peak of this bleak period was Park Chung-hee, who took power in a coup and dreamed of being president for life.

With two terms being insufficient, Park became president for a third time by changing the constitution, and then he declared the Yusin Constitution, and was elected again by gathering thousands of yes-men in a gym. Park, who planned on absolute power like North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, could rule for 20 years until he was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu in Gungjeong-dong.

I think if he were not assassinated, he could have ruled for 30 or 40 years and could have passed power to his children, and perhaps Park Geun-hye would have now been president for a while. All this took place under the legality of a plebiscite. In Park’s 1970s, Jeon Tae-il committed self-immolation, and the figures involved in the Inhyeokdang Incident were executed just 15 hours after being sentenced. It was the time when over 200 journalists with the Dong-A Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo were forced from their jobs, and the era of the Kim Dae-jung kidnapping. It was a time when anyone could be arrested at any time if you opposed the Yusin Constitution, and a time when media companies could be shut down for reporting it. That was the era in the background of the banned songs.

My memories of the dark past come from a heart wishing that such things never happen in the future. We read ‘The Great Stone Face’ to children so that they, while gazing upon the great stone face in the mountain, become themselves the great stone face. It is for the future. The twinge I felt inside while listening to the musicians’ stories was because I thought we might be going through the 1970s now.

As I got older, I pledged not to become a person who talked only of the past, and to not look at the past but think only of the future, but I feel as if I am once again enduring the path I traveled. This is due to the overlap between talk of Park Geun-hye as the presidential favorite, the plebiscite and the banned songs of the 1970s. When, several decades after the Inhyeokdang Incident, those convicted were declared innocent, Park said the innocent ruling was a ‘lie’ and ‘slander.’ Emory University, a prestigious private university in the American South, apologized for its connection with slavery at the time of its founding. The university said this was because only by acknowledging the mistaken past can one move forward.

I thought I left behind my youth in the 1970s. It was not the case. This was because of music. This was because of C’est si bon story. The sharp memories still live, and I vividly remember the era that suffocated and bloodied me like it was yesterday. This is what I want to say to the generation who was moved by C’est si bong. Remember the 1970s. Remember the brutal era of Yusin, the songs and stories outside of C’est si bon, and what kind of world it was.

Edited and republished with permission from The Hankyoreh / Englishhani Editor


The Hankyoreh – 7 February 2011:

‘[Column] Music and oppression in the 1970s’

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