The tragic deaths of Chŏn Bongnae and Chŏng Unsam

It goes without saying that the Korean War period was a severe and tragic time for Koreans, and writers and poets were not spared. For two young poets the wartime hardships they experienced proved to be too much, and both decided to commit suicide.

Chŏn Bongnae (born March 3, 1923 – died February 16, 1951)  was an up and coming poet who made his debut in 1950 through the Literary Arts (文藝) magazine. During the liberation period he had moved to the south together with his brother and spent most of his time in several cafe’s enjoying Bach’s music or reading the poetry of Paul Valéry.
When war broke out he and his brother were unable to flee Seoul and spent three months in hiding during the occupation by the North Korean army. After Seoul was recaptured his brother was drafted into the army, while Chŏn Bongnae moved to Pusan.
Without food and a home, he soon saw no other way but to take his own life even though he had a desire to keep on living as he attested in his suicide note. After drinking poison while seated in cafe Star, he wrote the following last words:

 I just drank phenobarbital. That was 30 seconds ago. Nothing happens.
2 minutes, 3 minutes have passed. Still nothing.
10 minutes have passed. My eyelids are feeling heavy.
I did not want to leave this world and this brilliant century. But in order to live correctly and honestly
I will go to my death with a smile.
Bach’s music is flowing around.

To the people I miss,

February 16th.

Haedong Kongnon
Cover of the 1949 magazine Haedong Kongnon (Korean Debates) containing Chŏng Unsam’s poem ‘In a Moonlit Night’

 Chŏng Unsam (born 1925 – died January 8, 1953) had published his first few romantic poems in Whiteclothed People (白民) magazine in 1949 and also was a promising new poet on the literary scene. During the war he had fled to Pusan, where he obtained a job as a teacher at Sukmyŏng Girls High School.
The day he commited suicide did not seem any different from his other regular visits to Cafe Mildawŏn. However next to his pent up frustrations due to the war, he had just experienced a painful heartbreak. This led him to his decision. In his suicide note he wrote:

After a long time it has really become clear to me.
Now, in the rolling waves of the sea, I can see the face of my lover sending me a smile.
Now I see before me that almost all of my beloved friends have gathered.
I don’t want to lengthen my life any longer in this time and place where they have taken care of me.
Be well. People I miss.

January 8, 1953   Chŏng Unsam

The deaths of these two promising young poets created a big shock among writers, and some of them wrote about this in their works. For example Kim Song inserted a reference to Chŏn Bongnae’s suicide in his novel Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952), when the main female protagonist of the story contemplates suicide and writes in her diary that she was thinking of committing suicide by drinking phenobarbital while listening to Bach’s music.
Kim Dongni wrote about the hardships that the writers had to endure in his famous 1955 novel The Period in Mildawŏn (밀다원 시대), and gives a glimpse of the reasons why these young poets came to their decision to end their lives so soon.

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