Korean Independence Activist and Poet, Yi Yuk-sa

2011-01-21

A continuing cold snap on the Korean Peninsula brought record-low temperatures this past weekend, with Busan plunging to -12.8 degrees Celcius, the lowest in 96 years. But a century ago, cold weather was tolerable compared with the despair and sense of loss that Koreans experienced during Japanese colonial rule. Koreans fiercely fought for independence, and among them was Yi Yuk-sa, a resistance poet who wrote about hope and yearning for freedom and fought as an independence activist to make that dream become a reality.

A scholar who pursued righteousness over practical interests
Yi Yuk-sa was born Yi Won-rok in 1904 in Andong, North Gyeongsang province as the 14th descendant of the prominent Confucius scholar Yi Hwang. In 1920, Yi Won-rok’s family moved to Daegu, where he studied modern sciences at a private high school. In 1923, Yi Won-rok left for Japan and attended university, but a year later, he returned to Korea and began to participate in the independence movement. He joined Uiyoldan, a radical terrorist group with his two brothers and carried out activities such as delivering funds. In 1927, when the Daegu branch of the Joseon Bank was bombed, Yi Won-rok was arrested and imprisoned for more than 18 months. His prisoner ID was 264, pronounced yiyuksa in Korean, from which Yi Won-rok adopted his pen name Yuk-sa.

The pen is mightier than the sword
After his release in 1929, Yi Yuk-sa continued to participate in the independence movement and moved to Beijing in 1932 to enroll in the Joseon Military Academy where he received military training. He returned to Korea the following year but with his deteriorating health, Yi Yuk-sa faced a dilemma as to whether he should continue to take part in the activities of Uiyoldan, or break away from the struggle for independence.

Yi Yuk-sa resolved his inner conflict by choosing the pen as his weapon for freedom. He saw poetry as a means to instill national consciousness and boost the spirit of resistance against Japanese colonial rule. He had published his first poem “Horse” in 1930, but his literary career under the pen name Yi Yuk-sa began with the poem “Twilight,” published in the magazine New Joseon in 1933. Some of his most famous works include “The Summit” and “Blue Grapes” both published in 1939 and “The Wide Plain” published in 1942. His poems describe the nation’s dismal situation and also express his yearning for independence. Longing for a peaceful future, Yi Yuk-sa writes in his poem “Blue Grapes”:

Beneath the blue sky the green sea unlocks its heart,
And a boat comes gliding, its white sail spread.

As I hear that my weary guest has come,
Tired body draped in a robe of deep blue,

In welcoming him, if I pluck these blue grapes,
What does it matter if my two hands are drenched?

There, child, on our low table’s silver platter,
Set out the white linen cloths.

Poet of resistance
Yi Yuk-sa was unable to see Korea’s independence that he had yearned for so long. In 1943, he was arrested and sent to prison in Beijing, where he died the following year. As a poet and independence activist, Yi Yuk-sa’s life was one of resistance, both in his actions and his poetry.

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