Censored: Documenting Yun Isang, a Dissident Composer, in South Korean Media

By Hannah Hyun Kyong Chang, Lecturer in Korean Studies, University of Sheffield

Paik Nam Jun (left) and Yun Isang (right) in Darmstadt, 1958

Paik Nam Jun (left) and Yun Isang (right) in Darmstadt, 1958

Today, South Korea is associated with a global explosion in musical creativity from K-Pop artists and others. But for most of its recent history, South Korean governments have kept a tight watch on what could be performed and broadcast. We might be surprised to learn, for instance, that songs by artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Alice Cooper were declared “decadent” and banned during the Yushin period (1973-9).

My recent article in The Asia-Pacific Journal discusses one of the most well-known crackdowns of musicians, a South Korean artist named Yun Isang (1917-95). Yun’s story is tragic in part because South Korean journalists could not write freely on public figures who had differing views on North Korea. In Cold-War South Korea, even rumoured associations with North Korea could destroy one’s reputation and status. Today, mentions of Yun are tainted by the government’s long-running mistreatment of a composer who advocated for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.

Yun is one of South Korea’s most recognised artists of the twentieth century. A promising composer in post-liberation South Korea, he moved to West Germany in 1957 and gained particular recognition in Western Europe for his modernist compositions. His big breakthrough came when the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra premiered his piece Bara in 1962. Bara, which alluded to a Korean Buddhist ceremony, was one of the early examples of Yun’s signature Koreanist style. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was the pride of South Korea as well, as newspapers reported on his accomplishments.

His fate changed in 1967. During what would be called the East Berlin Incident, the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) arrested more than 30 intellectuals and artists in Western Europe, framing them as spies for North Korea. This incident emblematised both the violation of human rights and the oppressive reinforcement of Cold War borders that characterised Park Chung-hee’s rule (1962-79). Besides Yun Isang, individuals who were arrested and kidnapped included Lee Ung-no, a painter in Paris, Ch’ŏn Pyŏnghŭi, a German literature student at Heidelberg University, and Pak Nosu, an international law researcher at Cambridge. Back in South Korea, Yun was tortured and given a death sentence. His music could not be performed or broadcast.

The news of Yun’s arrest shook art music communities and human rights activists in West Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan. Their campaigns for Yun were instrumental in securing his release. They were especially important as domestic campaigns were subject to criminalisation under a harsh national security law. Upon Yun’s release and return to West Germany, the South Korean government permitted his music, probably to counterbalance the negative global attention that it had invited through the entire scandal. However, the terms of performance of Yun’s music continued to shift. From 1975 to 1981, his music could not be played as Yun stood out as a leader of the overseas reunification and dissent movement. And again from 1986 to 1987, his music could not be performed because he refused to work as part of the cultural committee for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Even after South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1988, Yun’s music was constantly under review. From 1988 to his death in 1995, artists’ groups tried to invite Yun to South Korea, but every single request for his visit was disallowed in the end. Yun died in West Germany in 1995, not having had the chance to revisit South Korea since his release in 1969.

Yun’s story is a tragic one. My article, “Yun Isang, Media, and the State: Forgetting and Remembering a Dissident Composer in Cold-War South Korea,” approaches the issue of censorship by exploring how Yun was represented (or misrepresented) in mainstream newspapers from the 1950s and 1990s. Since newspapers were subject to enormous government pressure, they are an excellent way to analyse how censorship operated in South Korea’s Cold-War climate. Perceptions of Yun and his music were shaped by a collaborative relationship between the state and the media.

I hoped to put on record the victimisation of a figure who was considered so controversial that it was taboo to even speak his name during the worst years of the 1970s. South Korea may be past the worst of its harsh cultural politics, but music and artistic censorship is not completely gone. In 2018, the news of a “cultural blacklist” under the Park Geun Hye administration (2013-17) outraged the public. This blacklist, which disadvantaged figures like Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, also cut the budget for the Yun Isang International Music Competition. It brought to national attention the issue of censorship, an issue that many thought belonged to a pre-democratic past. It remains to be seen whether artistic freedom can withstand changes in lingering Cold War politics in South Korea.