A New Approach to the National Identity in an Ideologically Polarized Korean Community

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Kim, Yun-Cheol . “A New Approach to the National Identity in an Ideologically Polarized Korean Community.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv3n1a7

Kim Yun-Cheol

I was appointed the artistic director of the National Theater Company of Korea (NTCK) in February 2014. It was the first time in the company’s seven-decade history that a critic became the artistic director. Unfortunately, I faced strong objection from the theatre community, particularly from stage directors, who believe that artistic director meant stage director. A number of directors organized a relay of single-person protests in front of the gate of NTCK. I have never faced such objection and criticism until that point in my life. As a critic, I was used to criticizing and not being criticized. Now that I was appointed to lead the NTCK, it became one of my (unspoken) ultimate missions to prove that critics love and know theatre, too, and may serve as artistic director, possibly better than stage directors.

One of the major directions that I took for NTCK was to redefine the “Koreanness,” or national identity if you like, for the twenty-first century Korea. Heavily due to the thirty-six years under Japanese control in the beginning of the twentieth century, Korean people have long been obsessed with nationalistic patriotism. But it has already been seventy years since Korea was liberated from Japan and there appears to be a remarkable change now, particularly among young people who have never experienced Japanese militarism. Moreover, Korea has opened its window onto internationalism in terms of politics, economy, and culture. Resultingly, Korea is now an extremely and multiply divided country between nationalism and internationalism, between conservatism and liberalism, between young and old generations, between female and male genders. I felt this was the right time to reexamine the Korean consciousness from all possible perspectives to know better who we are, what we have become, as a nation: the perspective from the past, contemporary perspective, and the perspective of people of Korean descent abroad. But here I will focus on the third perspective, from which we can see the most drastic shift of Korean consciousness that transcends the opposite values of polarized communities.

I organized the Korean Diaspora series in 2017 that revealed significant aspects of contemporary Koreanness. Let me tell you about the beginnings of the series. In March 2016, I visited London to discuss possible collaboration on a play-writing project with the Royal Court Theatre of England. There, I learned that numerous anglophone writers of Korean descent, active in England and the United States, had benefitted from the Royal Court’s program. I also discovered that Mia Chung’s You for Me for You had been performed at the Royal Court, and its text had been published. The work was quite captivating. The writer’s juxtaposition of the reality and fantasies, of the story of the younger sister who escapes North Korea only to face a cold and uninterested reality in the United States, and the story of the older sister who remains in North Korea and confirms the death of her husband and son with her own eyes, maximizes dramatic suspense. I had always regretted the absence of plays capturing North Koreans’ reality in the series I organized to analyze and explore Koreanness, so Chung’s work instantly drew me. This discovery led me to research Theatre Record, which was created by a gentleman beside me whose name is Ian Herbert, a biweekly collection of reviews on all theatre performances held across England. Through this research, I learned that not only Chung’s You for Me for You, but also In-sook Chappell’s Pyongyang and This Isn’t Romance had been performed in England recently. Both works had also been published in the form of scripts. Pyongyang features the tragic love story of a man and a woman who are forbidden by the central party system in North Korea to love each other. The work boasts of a powerful epic structure and drama, in which the male character is eventually sentenced to a labor concentration camp, while the female character is handpicked by the Party Leader to join the troupe of performing actresses exclusively reserved for his entertainment and mercilessly raped by the leader in the end. While Pyongyang had a strong potential for dramatic effects, This Isn’t Romance seemed more appropriate for our chosen topic of Koreanness.

Then, I surveyed the literature on the plays written by American writers of the Korean descent. I was particularly drawn to the theme of Koreanness addressed in Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Julia Cho’s Aubergine, a work of considerable literary depth. I also chanced upon Kim’s Convenience through an unusual channel. I recall receiving a lengthy e-mail from Professor Don Rubin, then President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, in the autumn of 2015. In it, Professor Rubin relayed the news of a play written by a second-generation Korean immigrant named Ins Choi who was working up a sensation across Canada. About a year later, Mr. Choi himself visited me at NTCK with the script and video recording of the performance of Kim’s Convenience with Canadian theatre staffers. They knew I was planning to launch the Korean Diaspora series the following year. The Canadian Embassy in Korea also expressed an active interest in the project. I was delighted to read the script and realized that the play was a perfect match to our mission for the series. Mr. Choi wished that we would invite a traveling Canadian theatre company to perform in Korea. Instead, I asked him whether NTCK itself could produce and perform the play with his permission. Despite his qualms over the language issue, Mr. Choi generously accepted my proposition.

As we had already performed a number of plays by Japanese playwrights of Korean descent, we decided, this time, to focus upon writers actively exploring the issue of the Korean diaspora in the Anglophone world. Fully aware that there were far more talented playwrights of the Korean descent in addition to the five chosen by the NTCK, we nonetheless proceeded with relatively recent plays written in the twenty-first century, determined that we would continue the Korean Diaspora series into the coming years. We took special care to select the works of second-generation Korean immigrants who lacked, or were free from, the first-generation immigrants’ memories of Korea’s past because we wanted to identify changes in the attitude of the Korean diaspora toward Koreanness. We decided to undertake the project in the form of a festival lasting for a fixed period of time to maximize the participants’ concentration. This is how the Korean Diaspora series was born. I am not sure whether this series will continue. I know, for now, that this series is not among my immediate successor’s top priorities. It is my sincere wish, though, to see this series revived one day.

There are some common threads running through the five plays performed as part of the Korean Diaspora series. First, they were all written in English by Anglophone writers of the Korean descent. Language pretty much defines the start and finish of how a national community understands its world. The fact that these playwrights barely speak or write Korean strongly suggests that they have not inherited the nationalistic and patriotic consciousness of first-generation Korean immigrants that comes with the language. Consider the father character in Kim’s Convenience, who is even more strongly attached to his motherland, harbors even greater hostility toward Japan and is even more ethnically conscious than Koreans actually living in Korea. This symbol of first-generation Korean immigrants decides to bequeath his convenience store business to his children, hence redirecting our attention to the son, Jung, struggling to adapt to the mainstream Canadian society, and the daughter, Janet, who causes some storm in the family with her plan to marry a black police officer. These children are examples of the postmodern Korean diaspora that denies and struggles against the nationalistic identity of first-generation immigrants. Transcendence of the Korean identity is an important theme in all the five plays, poignantly evident in the fact that the strongest form of Koreanness second-generation immigrants experience involves their memories of Korean food. Think of the mudfish stew in The Dragons Flying, the turtle and radish soups in Aubergine, the burned rice in This Isn’t Romance, the kimchi and rice porridge in You for Me for You, and the ginseng in Kim’s Convenience. Under the pressure to assimilate, linguistically and culturally, into the mainstream society rather than learn Korean and remember Korea, the characters in all these plays are in a rush to forget Korea and skip communication with their parents.

The postmodern Korean diaspora extends even into willing self-alienation by foregoing all efforts at assimilation. The Dragons Flying provides a case in point. The play is a cabaret-style show featuring the songs and dances of a chorus made up of Asian women, many of whom are Koreans. Young Jean Lee, the writer, says that she wrote this play to punish Americans, to make them uncomfortable, and to make them realize how racist they are. Oh Dong-shik, who directed the play, provides a more insightful account of the play: “The writer says herself that she wants to become white. Through this play, Young Jean Lee derides herself for wanting to adapt to the American society, and derides the white audience watching her deriding herself.”[1] Lee handles the postmodern Korean diaspora that have failed to retain the Korean identity and also to adapt to the local society and that have thereby chosen self-alienation instead in a self-deprecating manner. The play begins by replaying a video-recording of the writer herself, who is seen, up close, being slapped almost thirty times by a character not visible on the screen. This excruciatingly uncomfortable footage lasts far longer than desired by the audience, revealing the uncomfortable state in which the postmodern Korean diaspora finds itself today.

In-Sook Chappell, an adoptee born in Korea and the author of This Isn’t Romance, is even more adamant than Young Jean Lee on the impossibility for her to be a Korean. The writer recalls the traumatizing experience she had when she visited Korea for the first time, in her twenties, as part of the Korean government’s “Motherland” program. “There I realized that I was a foreigner who could never become a Korean. As a child of an unmarried mother and as an international adoptee, I realized I was a shame to the Korean society, and that I needed pity from others for being so.”[2] Chappell says she wrote This Isn’t Romance to remind the audience of the distance that lies between adoptees and the Korean government leading the Motherland program. “This is an extreme play, representing an extreme viewpoint of a Korean adoptee,” says Chappell. “This play represents the thoughts and part of the sadness of a foreigner.”[3] The plot, centered upon the fatal encounter and love between Miso, who was adopted by a British family, and her younger brother who remained unchosen in Korea, is completely devoid of any memories of Korea. Even the brother character, who spent most of his life growing up in Korea, has become a member of an American gang by the time he meets his biological sister. The other main characters include a British person living in Korea and a Korean businessman doing international business. All characters’ behavior follows Western rules. The thorough absence of Koreanness is the defining characteristic of This Isn’t Romance, as the writer deliberately brings ignorance of Korea to the foreground. This paradoxical identity consisting in absence and denial exemplifies the willing self-alienation of the postmodern Korean diaspora.

Mia Chung may not be as aggressive as Chappell, but her You for Me for You offers an even more shocking dramatization of self-alienation experienced by the Korean diaspora. The play is largely about the struggles of two sisters, Minhee and Junhee, to escape North Korea. Interestingly, the writer tells the story of the older sister, Minhee, who gives up on leaving North Korea after she falls into a well, and the story of the younger sister, Junhee, who arrives in the United States and develops a new identity as a stranger there, as dreams. Junhee, who tries to rescue Minhee from North Korea with the money she earned hard in the United States, is shot to death by soldiers standing guard over the border between North Korea and China. Minhee finally arrives in Seoul and is referred to a government consultant tasked with helping North Korean defectors settle. As Junhee experienced earlier, Minhee, too, realizes her “otherness” in the indifferent and bureaucratic manner in which the consultant treats her. The final scene of the play shows Minhee eating a bowl of white rice by herself in an empty apartment, looking not at all happy. The scene poignantly portrays the existence of North Korean defectors who are forever treated as “others” even in the South Korean society.

Julia Cho’s Aubergine was by far the most beloved of all plays in the Korean Diaspora series. The play appears the most Korean of all the five plays performed, as it features a relational structure and themes typical of Korean drama. The play features a dying old Korean immigrant who speaks only Korean and his brother. Ray, the dying man’s son, cares for his father, prepares the last meal for his father to enjoy, comes to understand his father, and reconciles with him in the process. The relationship of love and hate, conflict and misunderstanding, and ultimate reconciliation between the father and the son — or between any family members — is not unique to Korea. Although Aubergine touches upon a theme that is particularly dear to the Korean audience, the writer addresses the more universal and ontological theme of a life lived by embracing death. The play particularly emphasizes the development of deep trust and friendship between Ray and Lucien, a former refugee-turned-male nurse who cares for Ray’s father and advises Ray upon various important questions of life. The two young characters who refuse to be denigrated into strangers and, instead, actively lead their lives in the American society represent free will independent of any traces of Koreanness. Most decisively, the writer has a white American woman named Diane to handle the prologue and epilogue in which she recounts food-related experiences to the audience. This theatrical device enables Aubergine to outgrow the compulsive and restricting boundaries of Koreanness and connect to the larger world beyond. Julia Cho’s calm, yet resolute, embrace of post-Koreanness and the post-Korean identity is evidence of the change that the Korean Diaspora series has caused in what we think of Koreanness today.

As the Korean Diaspora series drew to a close, NTCK organized a symposium with the title, “The Diasporic Generation Transcending National, Linguistic, and Ethnic Boundaries.” The title speaks clearly to the intent and conclusion of the series. A member of the audience of the symposium thanked me for organizing such a festival, followed by applause from the rest of the audience. Let me quote that remark as a way of finishing this address:

I am grateful for the Korean Diaspora series. I vaguely thought that the Korean diaspora referred to people of the Korean origin and descent living outside Korea who remained steadily oriented and loyal to Korea and Koreanness. The plays performed as part of the series, however, made me revisit my assumption. The series made me realize that the Korean diaspora consisted of diverse people who actively create their own stories and cultures, free from attachment to Koreanness. I was glad to experience this change of thought.[4]

I now say that Korea is still diametrically divided a community, but there seems to be a growing consciousness among Koreans that transcends beyond empty nationalistic pride and absorbs international objectivity.

Photo1. Scene from Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Courtesy NTCK
Photo 2. Scene from Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Courtesy NTCK
Photo 3. Scene from This Isn’t Romance. Courtesy NTCK
Photo 4. Scene from Aubergine. Courtesy NTCK
Photo 5. Scene from Aubergine. Courtesy NTCK
Photo 6. Scene from You for Me for You. Courtesy NTCK
Photo 7. Scene from Kim’s Convenience. Courtesy NTCK


[1] Oh Dong-Shik, Interview. NTCK’s Programbook, 2017, P.7

[2] In-Sook Chappell. Interview. NTCK’s Programbook, 2017, p. 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NTCK, Rehearsal Book of Korean Diaspora Season, 2017, p.190.