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Kim Ji-ha, dissident poet who shed light on democracy

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The late poet and pro-democracy activist Kim Ji-ha, known for poems like
The late poet and pro-democracy activist Kim Ji-ha, known for poems like "With a Burning Thirst" and "The Five Bandits," speaks during a press conference in this Oct. 31, 2014 photo. He died Sunday at the age of 81. Yonhap

Poet's works become symbol of pro-democracy activities during dictatorial era

By Park Han-sol

The works of Kim Ji-ha, a leading dissident poet and activist who died Sunday at the age of 81, served as a beacon of democracy during the military dictatorship of the 1970s.

Born as Kim Yeong-il in 1941 in South Jeolla Province's Mokpo, the late poet was a critical voice against the government as early as 1964 when he took part in protests against the Korea-Japan Treaty, which sought to normalize diplomatic and economic relations 20 years after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. Kim even served time in prison as a consequence of his activities.

After majoring in aesthetics at Seoul National University, he made his literary debut in 1969 under his pen name, "Ji-ha," meaning "underground," with five poems, including "The Yellow Earth."

It was 1970 when Kim launched a scathing critique of then-President Park Chung-hee's dictatorial rule through his dark, satirical poem entitled, "The Five Bandits," which described chaebol that accumulated wealth in unlawful ways, lawmakers, high-ranking government and military officials as bandits. The publication was promptly banned and he was arrested on charges of violating the Anti-Communist Law.

Just four years later, he was sentenced to death in violation of the National Security Law, for allegedly inciting hundreds of university students to conspire with North Korea against the Park regime. Although the poet was released 10 months later following a public outcry from the international literary circle, he was imprisoned again for six years for writing an expose about the government's wrongful, politically motivated arrests.

In a 2013 retrial, the local court found him not guilty of the charges, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

His 1975 poem, "With a Burning Thirst," made Kim an iconic figure of anti-establishment resistance of his time. It was adapted into a song in the 1980s by singers like Kim Kwang-seok and Ahn Chi-hwan, and often performed at pro-democracy rallies.

Kim Ji-ha recites his message to the international literary circle at the 1988 Seoul National Literature Festival held in Yeouido, Seoul, in this Sept. 1, 1988 photo. Yonhap
Kim Ji-ha recites his message to the international literary circle at the 1988 Seoul National Literature Festival held in Yeouido, Seoul, in this Sept. 1, 1988 photo. Yonhap
Since 1980, the poet had shifted his literary focus to write more lyrical, romantic pieces that explore Eastern religious thoughts and philosophy, as well as his desire to become closer to nature.

In Korea's political circles, Kim remains a controversial figure to this day.

He stirred nationwide controversy when he published a column in 1991 that denounced a string of suicides committed by student activists and labor union members in protest of a brutal police clampdown that had left a university student dead earlier that year.

Kim released an apology a decade later through an interview and in 2012 shocked society by announcing his support for then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party ― the daughter of Park Chung-hee ― a decision that he recanted in 2018.

The poet received multiple prizes both in Korea and abroad throughout his lifetime, including the Lotus Prize for Literature, the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights, the Daesan Literary Award, the Manhae Literary Award and the Isang Literary Award. He was also nominated for both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1973, he married Kim Young-joo, the daughter of literary giant Park Kyong-ni (1926-2008) who is best known for her epic 21-volume saga, "Toji" (Land).

A photo of late poet Kim Ji-ha is seen on the memorial altar at the Wonju Severance Christian Hospital in Wonju, Gangwon Province, Monday. Yonhap
A photo of late poet Kim Ji-ha is seen on the memorial altar at the Wonju Severance Christian Hospital in Wonju, Gangwon Province, Monday. Yonhap

Kim passed away at around 4 p.m. on Sunday at his family residence in Wonju, Gangwon Province, after his year-long battle with cancer and other illnesses.

The poet is survived by his two sons: writer Kim Won-bo and Kim Sae-hee, the director of the Toji Cultural Foundation. His memorial service is being held at the Wonju Severance Christian Hospital.

A book in remembrance of Kim will be published sometime this year, according to Yonhap News Agency.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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