Outspoken South Korean singer taps populace sentiment

April 14, 2011

On June 13, 2002, when South Korea, Japan and the rest of the world were captivated by the 2002 FIFA World Cup, a 50-tonne U.S. army vehicle crushed two South Korean schoolgirls to death during a drill in Yangju, north of Seoul. The girls, Shin Hyo-soon and Shim Mi-seon, both 14, were on their way to a friend’s birthday party.

Wearing traditional funeral clothes, a protester holds a picture of two South Korean girls recently crushed to death by a U.S. military vehicle, at a rally near U.S. embassy in Seoul December 5, 2002.  REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Thousands of South Koreans protested for several months to demand then-U.S. President George Bush apologize directly for the incident and hand over the U.S. soldiers involved to South Korean court.

The soldiers left South Korea after they were acquitted in a U.S. military court in the country in November 2002, which inflamed anti-American sentiment.

Angry that no one was found criminally responsible for the deaths, many South Koreans wanted the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) altered to allow local authorities to prosecute cases involving U.S. troops in South Korea.

South Korea and the U.S. have a military alliance dating to the 1950-53 Korean War. Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are based in South Korea, which is still technically at war with North Korea as the 1950-1953 conflict ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty.

Earlier, in February 2002, South Korean sports fans were outraged after national athlete Kim Dong-sung crossed the line first only to be disqualified in the 1,500 meter short track final at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. American speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno won the gold medal after the chief referee judged that Kim was guilty of cross-tracking, or interfering with Ohno’s path when the American was trying to move up the inside.

The spike in anti-American sentiment at the time was encapsulated in a song called “Fuxxing U.S.A,” written by Yun Min-Seok and performed by group Woorinara. Touching a chord with a frustrated populace, the song enjoyed significant popularity in Seoul.

Singer Baekja from Jaewon Lee on Vimeo.

“Woorinara”, which means “Our Country,” is led by Baekja, 39. He writes most of the group’s music and lyrics, which touch on themes like independence from U.S. influence, Korean reunification, workers’ rights and human rights. The group enjoys a devoted following among college students, workers and activists.

Baekja was an ordinary high school student who liked writing poetry until he witnessed the arrest of his teachers by the military government in 1989 for participating in the effort to organize a nationwide teachers’ union, which led to a government crackdown on supposed “leftist elements.” Baekja shaved his head and joined a student protest in support of the academics.

Singer Baekja performs in Seoul.  REUTERS/Lee Jae-won

He learned how to play the guitar which his brother had bought for him after entering university, and began writing music about social issues, founding Woorinara in 1999.

Because of the sometimes controversial content of his work, Baekja and the group have been investigated by South Korea’s spy agency, and were even tracked when they travelled to Japan to perform a concert for Korean residents there.

American Mary Collins was an English professor at Baekja’s alma mater, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and says she appreciates her former student’s work.

“The United States is not perfect. Even though I am an American citizen, I can say that…people need to think about it and talk about it,” she told Reuters in an interview.

“I have always liked Baekja’s songs…I’m hoping that he has a chance to sing in the United States for people to get to know him”, Collins said.

The folk musician has been performing over two years at venues near Seoul’s Hongik University, a district home to various clubs where many talented indie bands stage concerts.

Baekja wrote the songs on his first solo folk album, “Street Light,” released last December, over the last decade when he was active with his group. Rather than politics, they focus on themes like loss, loneliness, yearning and love separated.

One of the songs, “Without Exception,” or “Oegimupsi, 어김없이” is about a spring day coming again despite the absence of a lover. It was inspired by a Japanese animation film, “5 Centimeters Per Second,” directed by Makoto Shinkai.

“I want to sing both songs that console people and songs about social issues. I think both kinds of songs can soothe the hearts of people. I want to sing people’ songs until I die”, Baekja said in a recent interview with Reuters.

Singer Baekja speaks to Reuters during an interview in Seoul.  REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

The golden age of acoustic guitars and folk music in South Korea was the 1970s and 1980s, but the genre is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among fans in their 40s and 50s and also among a younger generation after a recent TV program featuring legendary folk musicians, who until then were largely overshadowed by flashy boy bands and girl groups.

Bakja will give his first major concert at local theater, Hakchon Blue in mid-April. The title of the show is “Spring Day”.

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