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From Koryoin to Korean Americans to Zainichi: Portraits reveal underrepresented sides of Korean history

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Sohn Sung-hyun's 2005 photo of Po Kim, a Korean-American visual artist / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
Sohn Sung-hyun's 2005 photo of Po Kim, a Korean-American visual artist / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

Online exhibition focuses on lives of marginalized ethnic Koreans

By Park Han-sol

A gray-haired man donning a striped T-shirt, with a pet parrot named Charlie on his knee, gazes at a corner of his studio in downtown New York one afternoon in 2005.

Korean-American visual artist Kim Po-hyun (1917-2014), better known as Po Kim, went to study art in Japan during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule of Korea to pursue his passion for painting, which began at an early age. Upon his return after the nation's liberation, he established the department of fine arts at Chosun University in Gwangju.

But a series of political upheavals following the country's newly gained freedom were what upended his creative life.

In 1948, as the Korean Peninsula was still coping with the aftermath of liberation from colonial rule and separation into two states, the nascent South Korean government under Syngman Rhee was keen on forming an anti-communist state. When a large-scale left-leaning military rebellion broke out in Yeosu and Suncheon in South Jeolla Province in protest against the government's violent suppression of the Jeju Uprising, forces were soon deployed to quell the "insurgency." As many as 2,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed.

Kim, one of many who had been labeled a left-winger by the South Korean authorities at the time, was fortunate to survive torture. However, when the 1950-1953 Korean War broke out and Gwangju fell briefly into the hands of North Korea, he was arrested again ― this time by the North Korean People's Army for being a "pro-American reactionary" after tutoring an American colonel's daughter.

With such traumatic moments burned into his memory, the artist was invited to a fellowship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1955. He then refused to go back to his homeland, which left him with nothing but agony, rather choosing to remain illegally in the U.S.

He eventually became one of the first-generation Korean painters to settle in New York City, continuing his lifelong journey to depict, in his own words, "a fantastic, dreamlike world as I free myself from politics or anything of that sort."

Kim is not the only individual whose life reflects the scars of the division of the Korean Peninsula, one that attests to the country's century of tumultuous modern history spanning from Japanese colonization to the ensuing ideological conflict between the two Koreas.

Photographer Sohn Sung-hyun / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
Photographer Sohn Sung-hyun / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
Sohn Sung-hyun is a photographer who, for the last two decades, has extensively documented such personal histories that often went omitted or underrepresented in the country's official historical discourse, through the black-and-white portrait series.

It was 1998 when this photographic series became Sohn's calling ― the year he first came into contact with some of the world's longest-serving political prisoners in Korea.

More commonly known as the "non-converted," these internees, who were deemed to be loyalists to the North under South Korea's National Security Law, were imprisoned on charges of subversion or espionage.

Those who refused to recant their communist beliefs had their terms extended indefinitely, spending up to more than four decades in jail, and were subject to beatings, threats, torture and later more subtle means of coercion.

The long-term prisoners included North Korean soldiers and war correspondents taken captive during the war, as well as captured agents and their transporters. But there were also South Korean-born leftists, who were accused ― sometimes falsely ― of being pro-North spies.

Since the 1990s, after decades of life in confinement, the surviving unconverted prisoners have been released under amnesty.

Sohn Sung-hyun's 2001 portrait of Ko Sung-hwa, one of the unconverted long-term political prisoners, on Jeju Island / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
Sohn Sung-hyun's 2001 portrait of Ko Sung-hwa, one of the unconverted long-term political prisoners, on Jeju Island / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

"In 1998, I came across a news article on their release from prison under amnesty declared by then-President Kim Dae-jung. I soon reached out to some of them who settled in Seoul's Nakseongdae area," the photographer told The Korea Times in a recent interview.

"I thought that these people were the very embodiment of the grim state of the country's division and all the irony within. I wanted to break away from the ideological confines and listen to their stories in earnest."

Although young Sohn introduced himself as a photographer from the start, it was perhaps only natural that he didn't get a chance to use his camera for months after his first meeting with the former prisoners. The men, in their 70s, 80s and 90s, were wary of his presence and would throw question after question at him to confirm that he wasn't undercover.

"Back then, pretty much no one approached them to take their photos like me. And it still remained a sensitive issue to talk about their very existence, let alone document their lives. Also, even after their release, they were subject to constant surveillance by law enforcement, with their residences under wiretap," he said.

It was only half a year after his first visit when Sohn was finally able to hear the click of his camera. The series began initially with him taking funerary portraits for the former inmates. In Korea, it remains a customary practice to choose one's own portrait before death, which is then used to honor the deceased at the memorial service. Soon, he began taking photos for those in other regions, including Gwangju, Daejeon, Busan, Incheon and Jeju Island.

A majority of those who became the subject of his portraits are now dead or were repatriated to the North in 2000. A total of 63 unconverted prisoners, who expressed hope to return to their home country either to reunite with their families or exercise their political beliefs, were permitted to settle in North Korea as part of the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration.

"Pyongyang did welcome them with open arms, but because they were individuals who have spent years in the South, upon their return, they were subject to another form of surveillance for the rest of their lives. And because they never recanted their communist beliefs, the regime couldn't have asked for better instruments of its propaganda," the 51-year-old said.

"Their lives could not have been easy on either side of Korea," Sohn said.

Photographic subjects extend beyond Korean borders

As Sohn spent around four years working on the portrait series of the long-term prisoners, he came to realize that similarly complex and multilayered personal histories in relation to Korea's political situation abound outside of the country's borders ― in the form of the Korean diaspora in other neighboring countries.

In the following years, his eyes turned to the stories of ethnic Koreans in China, Central Asia ("Koryoin"), Japan ("Zainichi"), Korean Americans and North Korean defectors who settled in the South and abroad. The number of his photographic subjects has reached over 400.

The reason he aims to capture these personal histories in portraits ― often along with extensive text ― is simple.

"It's because their faces are like maps of their lives ― lives which had been spent confronting impossibly difficult choices head-on," he noted.

Installation view of Sohn Sung-hyun's online exhibition,
Installation view of Sohn Sung-hyun's online exhibition, "Forgotten People," which presents the lives of three groups in the Korean diaspora: Koryoin, Korean Americans and Zainichi / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

Currently, the photographer is holding an online exhibition that offers an intimate look at three groups of Korean diaspora: Koryoin in Central Asia, Korean Americans and students of the Chosen School (educational institutions for the Zainichi community) in Japan.

"Forgotten People," hosted by Hanjin Group's Ilwoo Foundation in commemoration of Sohn's winning of this year's Ilwoo Photograph Award in the documentary category, brings together 167 photos that record the living states and ethnic identities of those who have remained marginalized within mainstream Korean history.

The exhibition will be on view until Aug. 2 at the virtual space of the Asia-Pacific Peace Memorial established by the artist.

The lives of Koryoin, which constitute the show's first section, have been marked by several stages of major migrations over the last century of history, with each journey inextricably intertwined with the modern and contemporary history of the Korean Peninsula.

Sohn Sung-hyun's 2017 portrait of Khan Yakov, a Koryoin composer and musician who became one of the founders of Kazakh jazz / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
Sohn Sung-hyun's 2017 portrait of Khan Yakov, a Koryoin composer and musician who became one of the founders of Kazakh jazz / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

Following the country's formal annexation by the Japanese Empire in 1910, independence activists and intellectuals migrated to the Russian Far East, with communities forming in Vladivostok as a base of anti-Japanese movements. For the next two decades, more than 380 schools for ethnic Koreans were established and 17 big and small Korean newspapers were published, according to Kim Byeong-hak, the director of the Wolgok Koryoin Cultural Center in Gwangju.

But the 1937 incident changed everything. After Joseph Stalin became wary of the possibility of Japanese spies infiltrating the areas where Koroyins lived, he launched a forced migration of over 170,000 people, dumping them on cattle trains for the 6,000-kilometer journey across Central Asia until they reached the wintry, nearly barren lands of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

"In the fall of 1937, all the Joseon people in the Russian Far East became 'passengers' at the same time … There were also babies being born inside the train. Train ghosts would soon take them away. There was no need to register their birth nor death. They came into this world and disappeared without even a chance to set their feet on the ground," Han Jin, the late iconic North Korean-born Koryoin playwright, later wrote in his 1989 short story, "Horror."

A 2017 portrait of immediate family members of late Han Jin, a North Korean-born Koryoin playwright who worked at the Koryo Theater. First in the front row is Han Dmitri, the second son of Han, and center in the front row is Han's widow, Ginaida Vetrova Ivanovna. Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
A 2017 portrait of immediate family members of late Han Jin, a North Korean-born Koryoin playwright who worked at the Koryo Theater. First in the front row is Han Dmitri, the second son of Han, and center in the front row is Han's widow, Ginaida Vetrova Ivanovna. Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

However, the exhibition doesn't stop at portraying them as victims of forced relocation. It instead turns to two cultural institutions that became a foundation for their ethnic pride and identity: the Koryo Daily Korean-language newspaper, and the Koryo Theater, which hosted performances and songs adapted from Korean classics.

"For them, one of the most significant goals was to not lose their language and national spirit. Both the newspaper and the theater have been made from the blood, sweat and tears of Koryoin artists."

Such stories are told indirectly in the portraits of playwright Han and Khan Yakov, one of the founders of Kazakh jazz.

A science class at the Kyoto Chosen Junior and Senior High School in 2019 / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
A science class at the Kyoto Chosen Junior and Senior High School in 2019 / Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

Sohn said that Chosen Schools in Japan could be viewed in a similar vein ― institutions that focus on language-centric, ethnic-centric education to preserve the national identity and spirit for Korean descendants. They form the third section of the online show.

These institutions were first founded shortly after Japan's defeat in World War II in the form of Korean language schools by ethnic Koreans, many of whom were mobilized during the colonial era to toil in coal mines, military construction sites and factories. While they grew into a systematic school network for ethnic Koreans, they were forced to shut down at the order of the Japanese government after just a few years of operation at the end of the 1940s.

The Chosen Schools we know today were reconstructed following the aftermath of the Korean War, when Pyongyang provided 120 million yen in aid, according to Song Ki-chan, an associate professor of image arts and sciences at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. North Korea naturally came to have a significant ― and controversial ― impact on the curriculum of these schools, from the nationalist language and program to the portraits of North Korean leaders hanging on high school classroom walls.

But beyond the ideological discourse, both Song and Sohn state that it is important to view these schools first and foremost as ethnic Korean-centered institutions within the history of the Zainichi community.

As the largest education system ― from kindergarten to university ― established by Koreans outside of their homeland, they remain unique diasporic institutions that provide the students with a sense of community and a chance to critically reaffirm their hybrid identities. Such opportunities cannot be found easily in Japan, where hate speech and discrimination against Zainichi resurfaces time and time again ― especially whenever negative North Korea-related issues emerge.

Students present maps of the Korean Peninsula at the Kyoto Chosen Junior and Senior High School in 2019. Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun
Students present maps of the Korean Peninsula at the Kyoto Chosen Junior and Senior High School in 2019. Courtesy of Sohn Sung-hyun

Sohn said that as long as his body allows him, he will continue the portrait series to uncover the personal life stories that remain buried underneath official historical discourses.

While he was preparing to make trips to Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the Russian cities of Moscow and Volgograd starting from next year to interview more Koryoin, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War has made these trips uncertain.

He is also planning to organize another online exhibition at the Asia-Pacific Peace Memorial next year, possibly his biggest one yet, under the theme of the "Korean Peninsula." Portraits of long-term political prisoners and war veterans from both Koreas are part of the series scheduled to be on view.

"As I trace the life stories of these individuals, I encounter exceptional vitality and tenacity that are present in each and every one of them. I aim to continue the documentation of their survival and ethnic history. It's a series of historical testimonies I'm leaving behind for myself, my family and Korean society as a whole," he noted.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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