Rebel with a Cause: Yu Chin-o’s (1922-1950) Anti-American Poetry


Reading up on the turbulent events of the so-called Liberation Period (1945-1950) the other day, I came across the story of poet Yu Chin-o. (유진오, not to be confused with another South Korean writer with the same name)

Debuting in November 1945 with his poem The Sound of the Flute (피릿소리), his poetry soon evolved into a stinging criticism of the political reality in South Korea. He couldn’t bear to see an American Military Government holding the reigns, while pro-Japanese Korean politicians and policemen were put in place to give legitimacy toAmerica’s rule.

Poems like Let’s go this Way (이대로 가자) and Just close your Eyes! (눈 감으라 고요히) written at the end of 1945 were just the beginning of his rebellion against the political situation. By July 1946 he became a well-loved figure within the leftist Korean Writer’s League (조선문학가동맹), who asked him to recite his poetry at every meeting.


Cover of the Korean Writer's League magazine Munhak (Literature)

It was not long before Yu found himself on an American government blacklist. The reciting of South of the 38th Parallel (38이남) on the 29th of August 1946 at a YMCA meeting, and especially the huge response he got from the 100.000 audience members after reciting his most famous poem For whom is our youthful heart filled? (누구를 위한 벅차는 우리의 젊음이냐?) at Dongdaemun Stadium on the 1st of September 1946, were the last straw for the southern government. A few days later he got arrested for violations against the military government and was duly convicted to 1 year imprisonment.

His poetry doesn’t leave it to the imagination who Yu Chin-o was criticizing. In For whom is our youthful heart filled? we find the following stanza:

 The flock which has been brought up in a cherishing manner
Received the seed of Barbarians.
Now also their shape has changed,
And we bow our heads,
In front of these new xxx [probably a very strong cuss word] guests
For the sake of praying for alms like life, property and fame

왜놈들의 씨를 받아
소중히 기르던 무리들이
이제 또한 모양만이 달라진
새로운 xxx의 손님네들 앞에
머리를 숙여
생명과 재산과 명예의
적선을 빌고 있다

 During his imprisonment several leftist writers and friends plead for his release. Poet Im Hwa praised Yu in his poems Song of Praise (찬가) and Yu Chin-o who is in Prison (옥중의 유진오). Oh Chang-hwan wrote of the sentencing: “If Yu Chin-o is guilty, what about the tens of thousands of audience members that cheered loudly upon hearing his poem? Are these people then not an accomplice in the crime?”


Cover of Yu Chin-o's anthology Ch'ang (1948, Window)

After his release the literary world in the south had changed dramatically. Leftist writer organizations were banned and many leftist writers including the above-mentioned Im Hwa and Oh Chang-hwan had fled north. In February 1949 Yu Chin-o became a partisan in the Chirisan mountains, but was taken prisoner by the South Korean army at the end of March. For his activities he was sentenced to death, but thanks to his older brother who worked as a prosecutor, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Soon after the Korean War broke out, however, Yu Chin-o was most likely executed by the South Korean government.