Poems by Kim Nam-ju (translations by Kevin Michael Smith)

Kim Nam-ju (1945-1994), born in Haenam, South Cholla Province, was a leading leftist poet associated with South Korea’s minjung or “people’s” movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. He was one of 36 individuals convicted by the military government for involvement in the National Liberation Front, an illegal, underground organization agitating for national reunification, and spent the years 1980-88 in prison in Gwangju. His sentence was spent writing dozens of poems commemorating the Gwangju Massacre of May 1980 and protesting his incarceration, South Korea’s military dictatorship, the north-south division system, and US neocolonial domination of the country. With the help of comrades both inside and outside, Kim was able to sneak these poems secretively out of prison for publication. Following his pardon in 1988, he resumed his writing and political activities until his death from cancer in 1994. 

My Name

My name
is red tag 2164
My age
I was in my mother’s belly as Japanese imperialism was chased out the back door
I came out into this world as US imperialism raided through the front door
a so-called “liberation baby”

You ask where I live?
My address is Gwangju City, Munhŭng-dong 88-1
2 S. H. 41 is my house and my room and my toilet

You ask where that is?
My time my place
a day with no sunrise a night with no moon or stars
a cave smaller than 3 meters squared
My freedom?! That’s 24-hour confinement
no make that 365-day confinement
no maybe it’s a 5,475-day grave

My clothing
only a single blue jumpsuit
My food
only three dented nickel dishes
My shelter
only a straw cushion and blanket

I’m “not allowed”
not allowed to t’ongbang1 with the next cell
not allowed to look inmates in the face once in awhile
I’m not allowed
not allowed to leave my designated seat without permission
I’m not allowed
not allowed to lie down or doze off outside of sleeping hours
I’m not allowed
not allowed to possess writing utensils or paper without permission
I’m not allowed
not allowed to read or try to read a book without permission
I’m allowed
allowed to report anyone violating the above conditions immediately to the officer in charge

You ask who I am?
You ask who I am and what I did to live this way?
You, you’ve heard them before
due to American beef imports the price of Korean cattle has plunged
crushed below that is a farmer groaning
those groans belong to my father
You, you’ve heard them before
because they shared the workers’ lives of pain they were accused of being hired illegally2
the pleas of a sexually tortured college girl
those pleas are my sister’s
You, you’ve seen it before
refusing to live like a slave exploited to the maximum
a worker declaring human equality by burning himself
that immolation is my little brother’s
You’ve seen it clearly before
the screams of a mountain village woman raped by American GIs on a “team spirit” mission
those screams are my aunt’s
You right now like every hour of every day
you can see it hear it in your house on your street
down every road you’ve ever walked
your compatriots, no different from your own sons and daughters
you’ve seen them and heard their cries
Let’s rip to shreds the XXX,3 puppet of US imperialism!
Long live the anti-fascist democratic struggle!
Long live the anti-imperialist national liberation struggle!
That chant is mine
mine and my friends’ and my neighbors’ 


Father and Son

My son
         you asked
                       your dear father

Shouting Chosŏn
Arrested by the
                                 police detective
Interrogated by the
Convicted by the
Under surveillance by the
                                                 prison guard
                      10 years
                                  behind bars
Of this dear father
                          you asked
                                       in prison!
This father’s youth
          from that same prison!

Yelling Anti-American
                              National Liberation
Arrested by the
                              police detective
Interrogated by the
Convicted by the

Now under surveillance by the
                                                    prison guard

Like this you asked
You said nation fear masses love
My compatriot thrown into prison
Who can be comfortable in their own bed you asked
What’s money, law, power, status you asked
What’s a life what’s living you asked


For memory’s sake

Exactly one knock that makes “k”
Knock, knock if two then “n”
Knock knock knock three that’s “d”
Zip if there’s one stroke then “a”
Zip zip if two then “ya”
Zip zip zip three makes “ah”
And so on vowels and consonants together forming syllables
Like this we start the t’ongbang

––Mister, for which incident are you in here?
––The South Korean National Liberation Front incident, sir.
––Ah! Is that right? I’m remembering it now, I’m proud of you, I’ll bet you went through a lot of hardship for that. I expect you’d have some company but just how many of you are there in here?
––Including the women, altogether there are 36 of us, sir.
––Ah! There are women as well? They must have been sent to the women’s block then. I apologize, I should have introduced myself sooner, I’m Yu Han-uk from Sinŭiju,5 what is your name, sir?
––Is that so? I am Kim Nam-ju from Haenam in Chŏnnam province, sir.
––Forgive me for asking, Mr. Kim, but how many years did you get?
––15 years, sir.
––Oh, really! Be especially mindful of your health, then. Does that room not leak water?
––It does leak; the ceiling is all rotten. But this can’t be a place for people to live. It’s no more than a coffin for laying corpses.
––That’s right, it truly is a coffin. Moreover, it’s a coffin on which rain drips. Because we are human we can manage to survive this place, but if it were a goose or chicken or some such caged animal it would have perished right away. Mr. Kim, you must move your body around in order to stay alive. If you don’t move you will not survive. Plenty of people go crazy or have their blood pressure burst in here.
––Yes, I understand well, sir. How long have you lived this life?
––Me, is it me you’re asking? It’s been a full thirty years.


Inside and Outside

this is my freedom
here I’m also inside
there I’m outside too
an animal’s freedom

this is my freedom
here I’m also inside
there I’m outside too
law of the jungle

there’s nothing
to read the books I want
to write the essays I want
to say what I want to say
there’s no such freedom
not here inside
not there outside
human freedom

at the top sits the capitalist boss
below the workers carry the weight
one country but two kinds of citizens: owners and slaves
a country split in two in such a country I’m
an animal’s freedom
it’s the law of the jungle
all for one
and one for all
there’s no such freedom
not in prison
not outside 


Things Have Really Changed

Under Japanese imperialism if Chosŏn people
shouted “Long Live Independence!”
Japanese policemen would come and take them away
Japanese prosecutors interrogated them
Japanese judges put them on trial

Japan withdrew and the US stepped in
now if Koreans
say “Yankee Go Home”
Korean police come and take them away
Korean prosecutors interrogate them
Korean judges put them on trial

Things have really changed after liberation
because I shouted “Drive out the foreign invaders!”
people from my own country
arrested me, interrogated me, and put me on trial



1 T’ongbang (通房) refers to the morse-code like system of communication among prisoners characterized by patterns of knocks and strokes on the prison walls, in use since the Japanese colonial period, and, as evidenced by Nakano Shigeharu’s 1930 poem “Finally from Today” (Iyoiyo kyō kara), among Japanese political prisoners as well.

2 This refers to student activists who left college to organize factory workers by not disclosing their college backgrounds to employers and getting hired as workers themselves, a common tactic of the 1970s and 80s minjung movement in South Korea.

3 This word was (self) censored in the original.

4 I have chosen not to translate the Korean term Chosŏnin (朝鮮人), which literally means “people of Chosŏn,” using the former title of Korea’s ruling dynasty (1392-1897), by which the Japanese also referred to Korea during the colonial period (1910-1945), and which is still officially used in North Korea. Leaving the term untranslated preserves Kim’s contrast in the original between the colonial period and the contemporary term referring to (South) Koreans, Hangukin (韓國人).

5 Sinŭiju is a city in the far northwest of North Korea along the border with China, near where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea. The date of this poem from the late 1970s implies that the prisoner with whom Kim is speaking, Yu Han-uk, was apprehended shortly after the 1950-53 Korean War for espionage or related activities on behalf of the North. To this day several such long-term North Korean political prisoners remain in South Korean jails.