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2012 Travel Diary 9: Yun Isang — Victim of the Cold War

Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Monday 26 March 2012. For most big Korean cultural events there’s a glossy brochure with a welcome message from various officials and dignitaries. And for the most important events you might expect a welcome message from the Minister of Culture.

The exterior of the Yun Isang Memorial Hall in Tongyeong, decorated with posters for the festival
The exterior of the Yun Isang Memorial Hall in Tongyeong, decorated with posters for the festival

It is a measure of the sensitivity of the Tongyeong International Music Festival’s association with Yun Isang that the Minister of Culture declined to put his name to a welcome message for the 10th anniversary festival.

Indeed, when I read one newspaper article towards the end of 2011, I wondered whether politics was going to prevent the 2012 festival from happening.

So what was so controversial about the life of Yun Isang?

Patriot Yun Isang - a summary of his life in his memorial museum in Tongyeong
Patriot Yun Isang – a summary of his life in his memorial museum in Tongyeong

Initially, he was a model patriot, being imprisoned by the Japanese for his anti-Japanese activities in 1943. In 1945 was one of the founders of the Tongyeong Cultural Association, whose patriotic slogan was “Let us nurture our national ethos through cultural movements in our freed fatherland”. Ten years later he would win the Seoul Culture Award for his First String Quartet, enabling him to travel to Europe for further musical training.

Yun Isang: Victim of the Cold War - an information board in his memorial museum
Yun Isang: Victim of the Cold War – an information board in his memorial museum

But like many patriots of the time, he resisted the division of the Korean peninsula and was also aligned with the campaign to democratise the South. An unauthorised visit to Pyongyang in 1963 was the start of Yun’s trouble with the authorities in Seoul, which came to a head in 1967 with his arrest in Berlin as part of the so-called East Berlin Spy Incident, when he was abducted by the Korean CIA and taken back to Seoul along with dozens other Koreans. He was tortured, tried and initially condemned to life imprisonment – though this was reduced to 10 years in a subsequent trial.

The defendants at the trial in the East Berlin Spy Incident, November 1967
The defendants at the trial in the East Berlin Spy Incident, November 1967

The 2006 Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to find conclusive evidence of Yun’s espionage, and according to Yun’s version of events his crime was acting as a intermediary between an old friend of his who had moved to Pyongyang and his wife and children who were still in the South. Accused of accepting money from Pyongyang, Yun acknowledged that he had received money to support his visits, but noted that any other government would also provide funding for such musical exchange activities. He maintained that his trips to the north were to further his musical career.

The Blue Dragon from the Gangseo Tomb Sasindo
The Blue Dragon from the Gangseo Tomb Sasindo, which Yun Isang saw when he visited North Korea in 1963

During his 1963 visit he had made a point of seeing a famous wall painting from the Gangseo Tomb dating from the Goguryo Kingdom, the Sasindo (사신도). While incarcerated in the notorious Seodaemun prison, he wrote a piece inspired by this mural. In this work, Images, he represents the four symbolic animals depicted in the painting with different instruments: oboe (representing the Blue Dragon of the East – 청룡), violin (Vermilion Bird of the South – 주작), cello (White Tiger of the West – 백호) and flute (Black Tortoise of the North – 현무)

Yun was eventually released from Seodaemun following an international petition by extremely eminent international musicians, but was told never to return to the country. He subsequently became a German citizen (in 1971), leaving him freer to visit Pyongyang which he did on a regular basis. In 1977 he was appointed as the president of the Association of Korean Democratic Reunification for the European Union. His music received official support in the DPRK, which is strange given their preference for more worker-oriented fare. His work in music education in the DPRK resulted in the formation of the Isang Yun institute, and in his works being performed there. He campaigned, with Hwang Byungki representing South Korea, for the 1990 Reunification concert to take place. He was even given a house in Pyongyang in recognition of his work for music. All of this supports the view that Yun’s visits to the North were to further his musical career.

Double Defector Oh Kil-nam
Double Defector Oh Kil-nam holds up a picture of his wife and daughters at a press conference on 8 May 2012 (Source: Joongang Ilbo)

But a more recent allegation against Yun is that he persuaded South Korean economist Oh Kil-nam and his family to defect to the North in 1985. Oh subsequently escaped when he realised his mistake, leaving his wife and daughters to their fates in the notorious Yodok detention camp. The fate of the so-called “Daughters of Tongyeong” is still a live issue today, and the Tongyeong International Music Festival and its related music competition seems to act as a catalyst for discontent. Sadly Oh’s wife recently passed away, according to reports from the North, but activists are requesting further confirmation as well as a meeting with her daughters.

Yun Isang's South Korean and German passports
Yun Isang’s South Korean (top left) and German passports, on display in the memorial museum

In honouring the musical memory of Yun Isang, the organisers of the Tongyeong International Music Festival and its associated independent Foundation obviously have to cope with this complex political background. The memorial hall to Yun Isang in Tongyeong is careful to avoid being too critical of the excesses of the Park Chung-hee regime (his arrest by the KCIA in the East Berlin Spy Incident is glossed over as Yun becoming a “victim of the cold war”) while portraying Yun as a true Korean patriot.

The contents of Yun's pockets
The contents of Yun’s pockets

In one glass case his South Korean passport is displayed, together with the contents of his pockets which included South Korean currency bearing Syngman Rhee’s picture, and what appears to be a handkerchief decorated with a Taegugki. Of course, blowing your nose on the national flag could be seen as disrespectful: another ambiguity about Yun Isang’s life.

Aidan Foster Carter, a long-time Pyongyang watcher, agrees with the “Yun-as-victim” view.

Indubitably, to my mind, Yun Isang was a victim of history … He was no communist; but he was bitter, and proud … One thing he was proud of was that his son or daughter (I forget which) had married a North Korean: “So you see,” he quipped, “at least in my family I have reunified my country.”

Lee Yong-min, director of the Festival, quoted in the Joongang Ilbo article, agrees:

“I think Isang Yun was like a mediator between South and North Korea. When people disagree, there should be others to mediate. I would say Yun played that role. What I can say for sure is that, should Korea be reunified, Yun will definitely be recognized as a pioneer of peace.”

And certainly that’s the message that the memorial museum puts across. “Yun’s music was always inspired by the aspiration for peace,” says one information board. “Yun left 150 works that represented a passion for life and a conviction for peace,” says another. Maybe it’s best to leave the last words to Yun himself, taken from another information board in the museum:

Yun’s music was often a vehicle to express sorrow and suppression. In his last recorded words, Yun said: “My music is a rejection of evil and praising for a victorious life. My music intends to share the sorrow of those who are suffering and help to give new hope to the human race. To all my brothers and sisters in my mother country, I hope you could find hope, comfort and courage in my music and try to bring peace and reconciliation into the nation as I have always sincerely wished for our nation’s peaceful existence. And farewell…”

Yun Isang's last words, from an information board at in his memorial museum
Yun Isang’s last words, from an information board at in his memorial museum

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One thought on “2012 Travel Diary 9: Yun Isang — Victim of the Cold War

  1. Han Eui-jong: I fully agree with the view that Yun Isang was a victim of history. Imagine you are banned an entry to your own motherland. Many intellectuals escaped S Korea as they could not bear the harsh and militant dictatorship to go to the US and Europe if they could to free their minds and creative spirits. How sad Yun carries a Korean national flag (not a handkerchief -He must have hung it wherever he lived…see the ties on the side) to hold onto his identity.

    However it was wrong of Yun to persuade or lure other Koreans into N Korea…. However a victim of history theory will carry on as collectivism is always preferred, depending which side one happens to mingle with or be thrown into.

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