Ko Un - why it took so long for his sexual misconduct to be revealed

Poet Ko Un / Korea Times file
By Kang Hyun-kyung

What poet Ko Un, 84, did to female writers, editors and publishers was something shocking. He groped them in front of other members of their groups.

According to poet Choi Young-mi, one of the victims who first revealed his sexual harassment, Ko unzipped his pants, masturbated and even yelled at a couple of female writers there to help him satisfy his pathetic sexual desire.

Choi said she was in disbelief at what she and her fellow writers saw in the early 1990s at a shanty bar tucked away near Tapgol Park in Seoul.

Choi, 56, said young women particularly in the literary circle were vulnerable to Ko's habitual sexual misconduct. For young writers, she said Ko was a towering figure in the literary world and wielded enormous influence. So no one could have dared to reveal his "sexual indulgence."

"People like him were members of the editorial boards of major literary quarterlies, through which aspiring writers and poets make their literary debut or publish their works. If someone refuses their request to curry favor with them sexually, retaliation awaits them. Their works won't be chosen for publication," she said.

Choi said the social hierarchy in the literary circle has discouraged the victims from breaking their silence about the ordeals and painful years they had gone through after they had traumatic experiences.

Hierarchical relationships also exist between the authors of bestsellers and female editors of publishing houses.

Writers like Ko "feed" the publishing houses that are financially dependent on sales income from the works of a handful of popular writers, according to those who are familiar with the industry. Accordingly, staffers of publishing houses were vulnerable to sexual predators like Ko.

Ko has led a double life for decades since he debuted in 1958 with his work "Pneumonia" in the quarterly Contemporary Literature.

In the public eye, he was a literary soul trying to find the meaning of everyday life in natural, social themes with the rhythms of informal speech.

His real life, however, was far from lofty. He's a habitual sex offender who took advantage of his status in the literary world to fulfill his sexual desire.

In his sunset years, Ko is paying the price for what he has done in the past decades.

His literary empire is poised to be dismantled as a campaign to erase his legacy is underway.

On Tuesday, he stepped down from distinguished professor positions at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Dankook University following a series of "shocking" revelations about his sexual misconduct.

Feeling pressure for the soured public opinion on the poet, the Seoul Metropolitan Government pushes to shut down a 60-square-meter library, called "Maninbang" named after Ko's 30-volume poem project "Maninbo: Ten Thousand Lives" about the lives of 4,001 people he had met. The library is in Seoul Metropolitan Library, the former City Hall building.

Eleven of his poems, including "That Flower" and "Certain Pleasure," are to be removed from school textbooks for middle and high school students.

Education Minister Kim Sang-gon remarked he would consult with the textbook publishers to remove Ko's poems from the textbooks. "Publishers have the copyright to his poems, so I need to discuss the issue with them," Kim said on Tuesday during a meeting with members of the National Assembly Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee.

Oh Yoon-sung, a professor of Sun Chun Hyang University, said removing Ko's poems from school textbooks is a necessary measure.

"Students are taught to be good citizens," he said. "They are educated not to commit sex crimes. What if Ko's poems are still there even after his sexual harassment and misconduct are confirmed?"

Oh said sexual offenses are not acceptable under any circumstances. "We humans are not perfect and make mistakes. But sexual harassment and assault are not something that can be justified," he said. "If his works are still there in school textbooks, I'm afraid this will mislead students."

A recent survey shows seven out of every 10 Koreans support the works of artists and writers who were involved in sexual misconduct being removed from school textbooks, while 22.5 percent answered their works and ethics are separable.

It is inevitable Ko's international image will be tarnished.

He has earned global readership after some of his works were translated into 14 languages. Since 2000, his name has surfaced as one of the candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

If Ko had won the Nobel Prize, Oh said, the situation would have been a lot more complex.

Cho Jin-man, a professor of political science at Duksung Women's University in Seoul, said Ko's sexual misconduct and his literary works are separate. Nevertheless, the political scientist said he agrees partly with the idea to erase his legacy because this is necessary to end the male-dominated society.

"The ongoing #MeToo campaign is sort of a social revolution to fight sexual injustice which has been taken for granted in this country for a long time," he said. "So what we're seeing is something revolutionary because the #MeToo campaign aims to reverse the course of action of this society. In this sense, poet Ko's sexual misconduct is no longer seen as something that can be tolerable today."

Cho said artists and writers are no exceptions in the campaign to correct sexual injustice. "We political scientists say there should be no reserved domains to make a society a free democracy," he said. "I think the same holds true for the anti-sexual-misconduct campaign."

The political scientist indicated artists and writers enjoy freedom of expression, but this doesn't mean they will be protected if and when they violate social norms.

Ko fell from grace after fellow poet Choi disclosed the dirty secret of the renowned poet. In her poem, titled "The Beast," in the Winter Edition of the quarterly Hwanghae Literature last year, Choi alleged Ko is a habitual sex offender.

"Never sit next to En. Poet K warned me of his bad habit of groping young women. I blame my fading memory as I sat next to him some time later. Me too. My silk blouse that I borrowed from my sister for the outing was creased. Years later I met him again at a year-end party thrown by a publishing company. He sat next to a married editor and as usual he was groping her. ‘You, the cranky old man!' I yelled at him and ran away…"

Choi said Ko's sexual misconduct is an open secret among literary circles and plenty of women, including young writers, editors and publishers, have been victimized by his "bad habit."

Revelations followed after Choi made the allegations.

Facing sexual harassment allegations, Ko said his fellow writers misunderstood his intention, saying he regrets any misunderstanding of his motives.

"I tried to encourage younger writers," he was quoted as saying by a daily newspaper. "If my act is seen as something akin to sexual harassment by today's standards, I think what I did was wrong and I am sorry for that."

Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr

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