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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Conference report: the 2006 BAKS conference

Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble talks about The Red Queen

The BAKS conference in Sheffield last week had a broad range of speakers. What follows is a personal response to the proceedings, and isn’t meant to be in any way an official account. I apologise to those speakers to whom I devote fewer words. No disrespect is intended. In any occasion like this, some talks are going to resonate more than others, depending on the listener’s own interests and level of knowledge.

We opened with Margaret Drabble giving an insight into her experiences writing The Red Queen. The book took 5 years to realise, much of which was taken up in senseless battles over copyright. It’s a mystery to me why the scholar responsible for the best translation of Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs should turn her nose up at free publicity and a fulsome endorsement, and withhold consent to have parts of her translation paraphrased in the novel (particularly when presumably Drabble could have hired an underpaid student to retranslate the original texts).

Drabble’s battle with the lawyers (7 in all) failed to dim her enthusiasm for the project. She described how she was gripped by Lady Hyegyong’s narrative — it was like reading Macbeth or Hamlet, but without knowing the ending. Her book has been well-received in Korea, where it is now in its third print run.

The wine had been flowing freely at dinner, thanks to the generosity of the Korean embassy, but that did not stop the assorted scholars requiring further refreshment at the bar after Drabble’s talk. The absence of any proper beer only slightly blunted people’s thirst. Fortunately for the state of people’s heads the next day the bar closed after two pints, but nevertheless the fine fry-up in the canteen the following morning was required to see at least one attendee through the first part of the day.

First up the next day was an interesting talk on Chosun dynasty medical understanding of madness at the time of Prince Sado’s death, given by Kang Han-rok. Park Sowon then examined the trans-cultural and trans-temporal exchanges taking place in Drabble’s book. I look forward to seeing these papers in print, because my head’s complaints about my abuse of it the previous evening was drowning out much of what the speakers were communicating.

The surprise hit of the morning was Andrew Logie’s talk on Choe In-hun, a long-established novelist whose works focus on the human fallout of the Korean war. Logie’s chosen subject was Choe’s novel The Grey Man, less well-known (because less approachable) than his previous novel, The Square. While in The Square the protagonist saw no escape from Korea’s troubles and ends up committing suicide, The Grey Man offers more hope in that the solution to Korea’s problems is to be found in nationalism. In discussion afterwards, it was commented that Choe’s views on nationalism were 20 years ahead of his time. Both novels have been translated into English, but are hard to obtain now.

David Prendergast restarted after the coffee break with an interesting study of family relationships — in particular looking at the circumstances in which elderly relatives choose to live with their children, comparing and contrasting rural with urban practice.

Son Key-young then looked at the “sadae” relationship between Yi dynasty Korea and China, and considered the application of the concept to Korea’s current relationship with the US.

In the last session before lunch, David Lee gave a lively account of how Kangnam — a district in southern Seoul — has developed over the past 30 years as a result of a conscious urban planning strategy. From being an undeveloped area of farmland and orchards 40 years ago it is now the only place to live in Seoul. Lee described how residents of Kangnam effectively now have a strangehold on places at the top schools and universities, and form an almost impregnable elite. Property prices are the most expensive in Seoul, so there are some fortunate former farmers who are now very rich indeed. Conversation over lunch revealed some first-hand stories of interacting with some of these nouveaux riches1.

After lunch we launched into film. Cho Mi-hye described how the Korean government’s cultural policy has changed from trying to preserve culture to trying to create it. Her final slide overlaid a map of Seoul setting out the different proposed cultural zones with the industrial zones related to these.

Andrew Jackson’s title — which sounded a little dry — was the highlight of the afternoon for K-film fans, and I’ll post separately about that. Finally, Aramchan Lee spoke about the fractured and traumatic images of masculinity to be found in post IMF crisis film, focusing on four specific areas:

  • Men inflicting violence on women (Happy End, The Isle, A Bittersweet Life)
  • Men suffering from a traumatic past, revealed through flashbacks (Peppermint Candy, Oldboy)
  • Men enjoying distorted or sadistic pleasures (Bad Guy, Lies, Friend)
  • Men suffering from posttraumatic stress (Taegugki, Attack the Gas Station, H)

The final session of the conference turned to politics. The stand-out performance was the passionate and exuberant Kim Hyung-a, who described the ideologies of the different political generations in Korea:

  • The 6.3 generation — Born in the early 40s, this generation participated in the 24 March – 3 June 1964 protests against Park Chung-hee’s accommodation with Japan. This generation was the standard-bearer of Korean nationalism and saw itself as the heirs of the April 19 student uprising. The watchwords of this generation were anti-foreign dominance and anti-dictatorship. Kim Chi-ha was one of the prominent intellectuals in this movement. One of the most memorable events was the mock “funeral of nationalistic democracy”, at which masked dances made one of their early appearances.
  • The Yushin generation — Born in the 50s, this is the generation which started the minjung culture movement. The most memorable incident of the Yushin generation was the self-immolation of Cheon Tae-il. The key themes of this generation were human rights and anti-Yushin democratization.
  • The 386 generation — In their 30s by 2000, at university in the 80s and born in the 60s. The footsoldiers of the minjung movement. This is the first post-war generation never to have been hungry. One of the key themes of this generation is their anti-americanism.

Kim Young-mi described the tension between the “civil society” (the 386 & Yushin generations) and the “veteran society” (the 6.3 generation), and suggested that views in relation to the DPRK were more determined by generation than by political party. She speculated on how votes would emerge if party discipline were not so strong.

Finally Alon Lefkowitz talked about how the South’s perception of threat from the North has changed over time, depending on geopolitical and national circumstances.

Many thanks to the organisers, especially James Grayson, for putting together such a stimulating conference.

More snaps of the conference are available here.

  1. I can claim to have had my hair cut in Kangnam. I was surprised that it was almost as expensive as Bond Street prices — but this was the same hairdresser that I was privileged to know in W1 []

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