Kim Myung-hwan, South Korean Writers in Solidarity with Palestine  

Korea and Palestine lie at the eastern and western ends of Asia, seemingly having little in common. But Korean poets and novelists (and their readers) have every reason to see Palestine’s catastrophe as their own. Despite their economic success and prosperity, South Koreans have been living under an uneasy armistice since the Korean War (1950-1953) much as the Palestinians have under Israeli’s prolonged military occupation albeit to very different degrees of precarity. Remote is the possibility of a planned all-out war in Korea, but an accidental military engagement between the North and South is likely to escalate to a dangerous armed conflict.  

In the late 1970s, South Korean writers and readers protesting against Park Chung Hee’s draconian military rule became interested in Palestinian literature as part of Third World resistance. The works of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), and others began to be translated and read by the Korean public. It was a new cultural phenomenon, because a binary view of Israel as “good” and the Arab world as “evil” had prevailed in South Korea due to its alliance with the United States. National division and the devastating history of the Korean War fostered such ultra-right, pro-American ethos in the South. At far-right rallies in Seoul today, participants still frequently wave American and Israeli flags alongside the South Korean flag.

Personally, the most moving piece of literature about the plight of Palestine is Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Returning to Haifa” (1969). The author, assassinated by a car bomb implanted by the Mossad in 1972, tells the story of a Palestinian couple who, in the chaos of the 1948 War, were driven away from their home without their infant son. Twenty years later, they were finally able to visit their old home thanks to Israel’s temporary opening of the borders after its victory in the 1967 War. Upon their arrival, the couple discover that a Jewish couple had taken up their house along with their lost son, now a soldier of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). To the readers’ dismay, the young soldier shuns his biological parents, accusing them of having irresponsibly abandoned their child, and his Jewish adoptive mother seems insensitive to the agony of her adopted son’s parents despite being a Holocaust survivor. Up to this point, the Palestinian father had discouraged his second son from joining the armed resistance movement, but as he leaves his old home again, he tells his wife that he hopes their second son had already left to join the resistance. This tragedy of a Palestinian family portrayed by Kanafani is especially poignant for Korean readers because it so closely mirrors the experiences of Koreans who were suddenly displaced from their homes and separated from their families due to the national division and war, never to visit their homes or meet lost family members again.

It was only in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq that South Korean writers began to collectively show interest in Palestine and take action for peace, partly because they had less experience in building international solidarity with overseas resistance movements. It took some years to actively promote international solidarity for peace and democracy after struggling against the overwhelmingly powerful military rule in South Korea that was finally toppled in 1987. In October 1994, radical young Korean writers organized the Korean Writers’ Solidarity for Vietnam (베트남을 이해하려는 젊은 작가들의 모임) to address war crimes committed by South Korean troops as the main ally of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. These young writers established strong ties with Vietnamese writers including Bao Ninh, maintaining their connections for decades. Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War based on his direct seven-year military experience as a regular North Vietnamese soldier was banned for a long time in Vietnam mainly because the novel frankly depicted the sordid reality of war.

Building on such solidarity efforts, in 2003, dozens of activists formed the Korean Anti-War and Peace Team for Iraq (한국이라크반전평화팀) and traveled to Iraq, and the Korean Writers’ Association (한국작가회의, then known as the Writers’ Association for National Literature 민족문학작가회의) decided to send a writer along with the team. Soo Yeon Oh, a young female novelist seized the opportunity to get involved in this peace movement, not only in Iraq but also in Palestine, and worked with Ta’ayush (Living Together), a peace organization comprising both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. During her stay in Palestine, she happened to meet the Palestinian poet Zakaria Mohammad (1950-2023), and invited him to a literary event in South Korea. Since then, a number of Palestinian writers along with Mohammad have visited South Korea at the invitation of Korean writers to build solidarity. I might add that Zakaria Mohammad was once in danger of being killed by both the IDF and Muslim extremists at the same time, just as Bao Ninh was subjected to censorship by the Vietnamese government despite having bravely fought for the liberation of Vietnam.   

Last October, shortly after Israel’s genocidal response to the Hamas attacks, Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, whose novella Minor Detail had just been translated into Korean, came to Seoul at the invitation of the annual DMZ Literary Festival. DMZ, or the Demilitarized Zone, designates the 4 km area on either side of the cease-fire line between the North and South, an ironic name given that it is one of the most heavily armed regions in the world. A few days before Shibli’s arrival in Seoul, the LitProm association in Germany that hosts LiBeraturpreis (an annual prize given to female writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Arab world during the Frankfurt International Book Fair) suddenly canceled (“postponed” in their official expression) its award ceremony for her. It was a disappointing decision that drove responsive Korean readers and writers to flock to hear her Seoul talk. As elsewhere in the world, Korean writers are sensitive to crackdowns on freedom of expression, but it is especially galling due to the history of censorship by authoritarian governments, not only under military dictatorships but as recently as 2008-2017, when the conservative government secretly blacklisted writers and artists critical of state policies. At the time of Shibli’s talk, the same repressive measures were being repeated under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration whose election in 2022 was by the narrowest margin (less than 1%) in all of South Korean electoral history. 

Anti-war protests among South Korean civil society have been smaller in scale compared to those in the West, but they have grass-roots potential because Korean writers and readers, on the basis of their own historical experience, deeply understand how urgent peace is and take the Palestinian calamity to be their own. On March 2, 2024, a poetry reading was hosted by a small bookstore in Paju, a city just fifteen miles away from the DMZ. A young Palestinian man, who managed to escape to Egypt and come to South Korea, gave a brief account of his own experience in Gaza to an audience of about twenty people, followed by a poetry reading for peace in Palestine. The event was joined not only by Koreans, but also by migrants from Uzbekistan, a Chinese student studying Korean literature, and others. The tiny bookstore is owned by a cooperative of sixteen members, and its next director is a Japanese woman married to a Korean whose daughters also attended the poetry reading. Events like these are being organized nationwide by writers, bookshop owners, and local activists. They hope that their endeavors will help create a truly diverse and egalitarian society, overcoming indifference and discrimination against refugees and migrant workers in Korea. The South Korean government provides refugee status to only about 2.8% of applicants, far below the average rate of OECD countries. Additionally, South Koreans have another important reason to be deeply wary of war. According to U.S. news reports, South Korea sent hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds to Ukraine via the U.S. military, exceeding the amount provided by all Western European countries combined. 

Israel seems ready to continue killing Palestinians unless they give up their resistance completely. But the history of humanity, filled with horrendous wars and massacres, proves that  ethnic cleansing leaves indelible scars in both the victims and victors. As D. H. Lawrence pointed out in his Studies in Classic American Literature, the United States of America was built on the ethnic cleansing of native Americans, a historical fact that explains the callous U.S. response toward events outside American soil including what is happening in Gaza. Links between worsening domestic social ills and imperialist foreign policies go unrecognized.

International solidarity is vital now. Korean writers and readers will continue to make persistent efforts, however small, to build such solidarity. Solidarity after all is not just about “helping others,” but about reforming ourselves by addressing the key challenges of difference, in the Korean case to overcome national division and achieve peace on the peninsula. In the Middle East where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all born, may solidarity build a world capable of embracing differences among these rich literary and spiritual traditions.

KIM Myung-hwan is Professor Emeritus in the Department of English Literature at Seoul National University

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