The politics and poetics of crossing borders come through beautifully in democracy activist Mun Ik-hwan’s calls for Korean reunification in his 1989 poem “Sleep Talking Which Isn’t Sleep Talking.” Its radical message continues to be relevant in light of current setbacks to inter-Korean relations and peace in the Middle East.


Dreaming of Peace and Reunification

Olan Munson

The poem, “Sleep Talking Which Isn’t Sleep Talking,” by Moon Ik-hwan, follows this introduction.

Protestant minister and pro-democracy activist Mun Ik-hwan (1918–1994) is remembered today as a tireless advocate for the reunification of the divided Koreas, his commitment to reunification resolute throughout South Korea’s decades of authoritarian rule. The question of reunification, or tongil, was both then and now a crucial political frontline—and faultline—in the democratization movement; and in South Korean politics today, it continues to draw party lines.

But Mun Ik-hwan was clear: for him, the fate of the South Korean democracy movement was inseparable from the struggle for unification on peninsular and even universal scales. Spurred by the suspect death of fellow activist and friend Jang Jun-ha in 1975, Mun stepped out of the so-called ivory tower of intellectual politics and into the frontlines of the pro-democracy movement. He was imprisoned in 1976 for political dissidence, and leading up to his death in 1994, Mun would go on to be arrested all of six times, spending approximately ten years total in prison.

This fall semester, students from Indiana University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Rutgers University have been meeting online through the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) Korean studies e-school initiative for a class of undergraduate and graduate level students called “Translating Korean Poetry: Theory and Practice.” Together, we studied Mun Ik-hwan’s 1989 poem “Sleep Talking Which Isn’t Sleep Talking” as part of a unit spotlighting poems that require understanding the text’s historical context. Given the option to either translate a poem or analyze an existing translation for this unit’s assignment, Indiana University graduate student Seth Warnick was among the students who took on the difficult but timely task of translating Mun’s context-laden poem for a contemporary English readership.

The narrator of the poem is acutely conscious of the absurdity with which his impassioned calls for reunification are received by his contemporaries. By then, the collective hope sparked by the North-South Joint Statement of July 4, 1972 was fading to the extent that “to go to Seoul Station, or Busan, or Gwangju / and demand a ticket to Pyongyang” was sounding less attainable, and more like the ramblings of a person asleep to historical circumstances.

In his translation, Warnick has favored a dead serious tone over the deadpan. Where the translation renders the narrator’s pronouncement, “This is serious,” the Korean notably employs the word jindam (眞談), which shares a Sino-Korean root with the word for truth jinsil (眞實), but unlike jinsil, also contains the Sino-Korean for speech dam to mean, literally, truthful speech. The word jindam evokes its opposite nongdam, for making jest or “jokes,” and the usage of the word in practice, I might argue, is so closely married to its double that it should be read in relation to what it is not. Which is to say, jindam is jindam by virtue of not being nongdam

The echo of nongdam is brought into relief by a projected group of skeptics, italicized in the translation for the benefit of the reader. The difficulty of translating lines like, “Those of you with your head on straight (이 말짱한 것들아)/ If you won’t sell me a ticket to Pyongyang, forget it!”, and the problem of how to prevent the narrator’s retort from sounding like an injured deflection, has everything to do with the familiar and colloquial register of the language that this dialogue sets into effect. The Korean reads as an impudent jibe, and one conjures the image of Mun’s grinning face as he steps off the prison van, in a famous photograph, to the first trial awaiting him after his 1989 visit north.

Beautifully rendered in translation is the emphatic drive of Mun’s poem. Leveraging expressions like “I tell you!” and other turns of phrases particular to English, Warnick draws out some of the finer points of the poem’s message, in a true demonstration of how translation can be more than just the melancholic transfer of parts. Instead of being fettered by the limitations of its operation, how might translation enact the encounter between English and Korean to create new insights? Where Mun evokes the shamanic household practice of keeping shinjudanji (신주단지)—a small vessel regarded as a dwelling place for a deity—and tending to it with extreme care and devotion in order to ensure the auspices of the deity for one’s family, the line strikes a comparison between this tradition of devotion to shinjudanji and the political “ideologies, or philosophies, or systems” that sustain Korean division; here, the translation offers the creative analog of “totem” for this complex reference. Attention to the metaphors of exchange, like heat and touch, that seem to indicate the possibility of an embodied, languageless bond, is complemented to great effect by the choice to translate something like han ma-eum  (한 마음) as “one mind,” though the word ma-eum could just as well be translated as “heart.” Such careful choices demonstrate the translator’s sensitivity to the parallel forces of intellect and feeling in Mun’s work. In another moment, where the Korean repeats Mun’s invented phrase “to live history,” the translation makes the insightful distinction between “making history”—a posture that seeks glory first—and the poet’s commitment to “living history,” a process described by way of the poem’s imagery as a struggle of seemingly improbable proportions.

Swearing allegiance, sticking your neck out following orders
And earning a medal— do you think this is making history?
It isn’t, I tell you, it is not!
To live history
Is to change night into day, day into night,
Is to overturn sky and earth, earth and sky, 
Is to kick a boulder into pieces with bare feet (…)

“Sleep Talking Which Isn’t Sleep Talking” was published in the April 1989 issue of the journal Minjok minju undong  (민족민주운동), and Mun dates the poem thirty minutes into the new year, as if announcing a dare. In March of the same year, Mun Ik-hwan would make the historic trip to North Korea to meet with Kim Il Sung and advocate for a three-step plan for “unification by the federal formula” (연방제 통일). In retrospect, we are struck by the way the oblique conditional tense mingles with the implicit futurity of the repeated sentence endings –geoji (-거지) throughout the poem. One can imagine the readers of his poem, a month later, shaking their heads, but without recourse to disbelief—Mun had already turned the hardly believable into a historical event. When his narrator cries, “I don’t just speak of history, I tell you that I’m living it!” he means it in the most literal sense.

Mun was arrested and imprisoned on returning to southern soil for violation of the National Security Law. Many consider Mun’s visitation to have paved the way for the inter-Korean summit of 2000; and perhaps most fresh in public memory, the 2018 meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom, where both sides committed to military de-escalation, denuclearization, and the pursuit of inter-Korean economic exchange.

Why read Mun Ik-hwan today? Since its outset, South Korea’s current administration has set itself towards a near total reversal of the strides toward peace made in the 2018 summit, pursuing a confrontational policy towards North Korea and working actively against the agreements established in the Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula; at the domestic level, the administration has renewed efforts to militarize the police, and reactivated old, familiar rhetorical turns that bear the traces of authoritarian regimes of the recent past. Just last week, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol evoked the possible threat of a “Hamas-like” North Korean attack as pretext for heightened joint security measures with the US. But the comparison Yoon draws exposes its very figuration of Palestinian and North Korean lives as purely “threat,” showing us how exactly such lives are made ungrievable. Were Mun Ik-hwan alive to see the violent razing of Gaza today, he would no doubt be among the first to remind us that the world is at stake in Palestinian liberation, and that it’s as much entwined with the struggle for inter-Korean peace as it is related to the ongoing Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta, Georgia. “Sleep Talking” speaks from the annals to remind us that the political horizon of believability is ours to enact.

Sleep Talking Which Isn’t Sleep Talking

by Moon Ik-hwan
trans. Seth Warnick

I’m going to Pyongyang this year
At all costs, no matter what. This
Is not sleep talking, it’s not a joke
This is serious.

Of course, you’re just some poet
Flaunting your absurd imagination.
No way, absolutely not! I,
Before this year of 1989 is out, will really go.
I’ve determined that I will go.

Isn’t there a saying, starting out is half the battle?
Just picture climbing Moran Hill
Or wading out into the Taedong,
Grabbing the hands of passersby while you stroll the streets,
Exchanging innermost feelings through the warmth of our palms,
Thawing frozen hearts.
I won’t call them puppets.
But I also have no mind to call them “the people.”

In our language, we’ve a good word: tongmu.1
Calling people tongmu again will take me back
To when I was a young man.

How great it will be.
Back then, to throw off the chains of Japanese imperialism,
We were all of one mind.
One mind.
Yes, can’t you recall how with one mind
Our ancestors beat back a million Tang soldiers?

Well, then with one mind
We will confirm that we seventy million Koreans are one people
In our passing glances and our heated breath,
Perhaps then we will hug and roll around on Pyongyang’s streets.
We will take these totems the ideologies, or philosophies, or systems,
Which we’ve opposed as enemies these forty-four years,
Wrongfully made to avoid each other’s gaze,
Shamefully, shamefully, stabbing each other to death,
Calling each other puppets or dogs
And crush them.

Listen to yourself speaking so casually.
Who would let you go to Pyongyang?
The National Security Law is still alive and well.

Don’t say such nonsense!
I’m talking about history.
I don’t just speak of history, I tell you that I’m living it!
Meekly doing what’s permitted as you’re told,
Swearing allegiance, sticking your neck out following orders
And earning a medal — do you think this is making history?
It isn’t, I tell you, it is not!
To live history
Is to change night into day, day into night,
Is to overturn sky and earth, earth and sky,
Is to kick a boulder into pieces with bare feet
And be buried in the rubble,
Is to live only as a spirit, fluttering high through the flag of freedom.
In this land where you must scream, insisting that walls are doors to leave,
To live history today
Is to reject national division with your whole being,
Is to cry out that there is no demarcation line,
Is to go to Seoul Station, or Busan, or Gwangju
And demand a ticket to Pyongyang.

This guy’s head is on backwards!

Yes, my head is on backwards, it’s on completely backwards.
Do you think I’d be living history if it wasn’t backwards?
Those of you with your heads on straight,
If you won’t sell me a ticket to Pyongyang, forget it!

I’ll be going even if I must walk,
I’ll be going even if I must swim the Imjin River,
When I am shot dead someday along the way,
Then there is nothing to be done.
Like a cloud, like the wind, I will go as a spirit.

Olan Munson is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan

Seth Warnick is a MA student at Indiana University majoring in East Asian studies

  1. Buddy, pal, companion. This term has come to carry a similar political connotation as “comrade” in English.