Korean theatre has been caught in the middle of a historical vortex that started in 2016 and has continued into 2018. During this turbulent period, the most dramatic of scenes have played out not on the comparatively quiet theatrical stage, but on the highly charged socio-political stage. It will, no doubt, take some time for the resulting cultural upheaval that has raged on to fully filter down into theatrical themes for plays.
Over the last couple of years, Korean society has gone through some revolutionary moments on two fronts. First, the collective voice and power of the people helped to oust President Park Geun-Hye from office. Nationwide protests erupted when it became clear that she had allowed Choi Soon-Sil, a close friend and crony without any official role in government, to strongly influence both domestic policies and foreign diplomacy.
The public outcry was made even stronger when it was revealed that Choi was allowed to set up a cultural foundation and received approximately eighty million U.S. dollars in contributions from big companies by peddling her influence and power (the so-called Park Geun-Hye-Choi-Soon-Sil Gate Scandal). Candlelit demonstrations across the country continued from October 2016 to May 2017, even after Park Geun-Hye was impeached by the General Assembly, removed from office by the Constitutional Court and imprisoned. Her trial was still going on at the time of writing (in early 2018), but a final verdict and any subsequent punishment were expected to be handed down within weeks.
Following the early presidential election on May 9, 2017, the Liberal Party candidate Moon Jae-in was easily swept into office. This did not end the desire for social revolution witnessed in the demonstrations, but, rather, continued to seep into the gamut of daily life. Indeed, the second revolutionary movement gained steam at the beginning of 2018 with the “#Me too” movement that started in the United States and rapidly gained momentum elsewhere, including Korea, which has long been dominated by a male dominated power structure. Accusations of violent physical, sexual and emotional abuse predominantly against women and rooted in the long rooted gender biased hierarchical social structure began to surface. Shocking stories of such abuse spread rapidly, particularly in the world of theatre which has been intertwined and on the frontline of both socio-political revolutionary movements.
All the Soldiers Are Pathetic, written and directed by Park Geun-Hyung. ⓒ Namsan Arts Center
Government Censorship of Blacklisted Artists
Ex-President Park Geun-Hye, who took office in February 2013, had a broad-based blacklist of artists compiled whom she deemed to be anti-government. She then mobilized the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) to oppress all enlisted artists by banning them from receiving any government funding or support. Many leading cultural figures and artists, including theatre actors, directors and writers who made up a majority of the blacklist, were denied access to a diverse array of opportunities. They, for example, were excluded from participating in any public theatre performances and from being eligible for government subsidies and assistance organized by the Arts Council Korea (ACK), Korea Arts Management Service, and Korean Artist Welfare Foundation, among others. From the end of 2014, suspicions already began to be raised that artists from the theatre world who were also on the blacklist were being eliminated from competition by ACK.
The following September, a jury member of a government foundation for the cultural area debunked, in a television interview, the claim that a well-known director Park Geun-Hyung’s theatrical work All the Soldiers Are Pathetic was excluded by ACK. This claim, however, was proven to be true during the Inspection of the Government Offices by the Cultural Subcommittee of the National Assembly. Until 2016, the MCST and ACK continued to deny all blacklist related rumors, nonetheless.
According to later court testimony, it became obvious that censorship conducted between 2014 and 2016 was based not on the content of the work, but on the names of artists on the blacklist. For example, the core government body ACK sent the lists of selected works via the MCST to Cheongwadae, the Blue House, or presidential palace. Cheongwadae subsequently returned them with marks on the names of individuals who should be eliminated from funding. This process was applied to every screening. Typically, the period of time between any screening and announcing of the results should have been done within a day or two after any relevant discussions, but they were found to have been frequently postponed even up to two months. Cheongwadae’s orders were then carried out by the ACK through the MCST.
It is uncanny that such excessive censorship was imposed on artists who are generally regarded as not having much influence on the people. It was later revealed that Kim Ki-Chun (1939-), the head of presidential secretaries for Park Geun-Hye from August 2013 to February 2015, played a key role in implementing the censorship. He is widely known to have steadfastly dedicated himself to both former President Park Chung-Hee(1917-79) and his daughter Park Geun-Hye for almost four decades, while serving as the director of the Counter Communist Investigation Bureau of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (1974), Attorney General (1988-90), Minister of Law (1991-92), and three-time ruling party lawmaker (1996-2008).
In the 1970s, while in charge of the Counter Communist Investigation Bureau, Kim Ki-Chun was involved in fabricating evidence to portray anti-government people as traitors, going so far as to indict several Japan-born Korean college students for espionage. They were initially found guilty, but were later cleared and exonerated of all allegations. He also engaged in designing the draft of the Yushin Constitution in 1972, which was initiated and pushed through the General Assembly by Park Chung-Hee, who not only ignored, but violated the separation of powers in order to extend his rule. This new law also erased the prohibition of censorship and restricted the freedom of speech, publication, assembly and association.
Reappearing on the political scene in August, 2014, as chief of secretaries for Park Geun-Hye, Kim orchestrated “the elimination of the left-wing in the culture and arts fields.” It is believed that the cultural blacklist and intensive censorship have something to do with the Sewol Ferry sinking disaster in April 2014, which left more than three hundred and four people on board dead, including two hundred fifty high school students. Park Geun-Hye and her government were largely criticized and held accountable by the people for their poor handling of this tragedy. The 9,473 artists on the first blacklist had all signed the statement denouncing the Government’s incompetence in dealing with the Sewol Ferry accident. Some of these same artists had also previously declared their support for the opposition presidential candidate.
The controversial censorship of the Park Geun-Hye administration denied access to government subsidies and support to several projects, including the 36th Seoul Theater Festival Project (November 2014), Yoon Han-Sol’s Street Theatre Project Ansan Pilgrim Path (January 2015), Park Keun-Hyung’s All the Soldiers Are Pathetic (in the middle of 2015) and Kim Jung’s pop-up theatre This Kid (October 2016). In addition to being prohibited from receiving public funding, some cultural projects were denied access to theater space at public venues. In some cases, it is clear that the reasoning for such actions by the government was out of fear that the plays would remind people of the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster and all those who died.
While the theater sector was severely impacted and even damaged during this period of government censorship, their solidarity proved to be much stronger and their resistance more intense and fiercer compared to other cultural sectors. Despite first feeling angered, and then sad, shamed and even helpless, they did not simply surrender or fail to act. In the beginning of 2015, a group of theater artists established the “Daehakro X Forum” to open an on-off line “Agora” for public debate on justice. In 2016, they also introduced a protest stage program to try and gather the audiences’ attention to the “Censorship.” Twenty-one theater companies and individuals gathered at “Yeonwoo Small Theater,” under the flag of “Kwon Ri Jang Jeon 2016-Censorship Excellency” and, for five months, put on a series of 22 plays about the censorship issue that had never before been seen. Through “Kwon Ri Jang Jeon 2016-Censorship Excellency,” artists managed to collectively overcome their feelings of fear, anger, and helplessness, which they had initially confronted individually. They came together to finally cure the wounds caused by such censorship.
The other positive outcome achieved from this effort was the bonding together of young artists who could look at one another with a new perspective. It is true that, since the 1990s, young theatre artists had become more accustomed to seeking and being acknowledged by the older generations, rather than by their contemporaries. The struggle among young artists for recognition from the previous generations has now weakened and their own self-consciousness strengthened. During this period of upheaval, their collective resistance to government censorship motivated them to rediscover each other’s existence.
From such actions of solidarity, artists joined forces and moved on to build a tent theatre named “Black Tent – Public Square Theater” in Gwanghwamun Square, in downtown Seoul, where the peaceful candle light protests that were eventually seen around the world were held every Saturday.
On the first day of erecting the tent, January 7, 2017, the head of the “Black Tent,” theatre director Lee Hae-Sung, said that, since all the public theatres belonging to the MCST were not functioning properly given the government’s censorship, it could play a vital role as an alternative public theatre space until the President stepped down. Parents bereft from the sudden loss of their children in the sinking of the Sewol Ferry also participated with an amateur theatre piece in this Black Tent. For over two months, until the eventual impeachment of Park Geun-Hye, the “Black Tent” played a significant and even historic role as a symbol of the people’s ambition to preserve the rights of free expression.
The Impact of the “#Me too” Wave on Hierarchical and Gender Based Violence
The candle light revolution did not just end in the political sphere with the ousting of Park Geun-Hye, but extended itself into the realm of everyday life; “#Me too” movement rapidly shot up against the hierarchical and gender-based violence that had long infiltrated all facets of Korean society. Despite the successful democratic movement in the latter part of the twentieth century, issues of gender based violence and discrimination were never directly addressed as a part of the main discourse in Korea particularly given the dominant patriarchal culture that has long prevailed. Only now, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, has the abuse that so many people, primarily women, long faced come to be thoroughly uncovered though the “Me too” movement.
On January 29, 2018, just as people’s interest in the online exposure of “#sexual violence in the literature arena” starting in September 2017 began to wane, a woman prosecutor Seo Ji-Hyun ignited a new spark by posting a short story, “I Iish,” which was analogous to Hollywood’s “#Me too Movement” that began in 2017. The live interview of Seo Ji Hyun on the JTBC evening news program divulged cases of sexual molestation in the Prosecutor’s Office. And a few days later, cases of sexual molestation and rape committed by prominent cultural figures were publicly exposed. The long list included Koh Eun, frequently listed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature; Lee Myung-Haeng, a promising actor; and Lee Yoon-Taek, perhaps the most influential theatre director in Korea.
Since then, such revelations have engulfed the whole country and the list has only grown longer to include the sexual offenses of movie directors and stars, theatrical actors, cartoonists and professors of theater departments in universities. As recently as March 5, another interview on the same evening news broadcast exposed the sexual assault of a rising political leader which forced him to resign and for his supporters to panic.
The theatrical world has become a pivotal player and source of support encouraging the “#Me too” movement. On February 14, Kim Soo-Hee, head of the theatre company “Mee In,” ignited the first explosive round of the “#Me too” movement, by publicly accusing director Lee Yoon-Taek of repeated sexual abuse ten years earlier. Accusations of sexual violence committed by other senior members of Lee, Yoon Taek’s theatre company “Yeonhee-dan Geori-pae,” which, apparently, went on for years, have subsequently followed those hurled against Lee Yoon-Taek. “Yeonhee-dan Geori-pae,” was based in the southern part of South Korea in an old closed school playground in Milyang. Since 1999, the theater company under Lee Yoon–Taek maintained a communal lifestyle claiming that they were an “ideal theatre community.” Long considered to be the best theater group in Korea, it frequently traveled abroad to Asia, Europe and Latin America. It has since been revealed that there was an unwritten law within the community not to raise any questions against unjust commands, which served only to enable and sustain the hierarchical violence that occurred including sexual crimes. It now appears that the wrongdoing and crimes that were carried out by the director and senior actors had become systemic in such a closed group environment. The “#Me too” movement in theatre is still unfolding, and the number of suspects who have been accused of committing sexual abuse is increasing day by day. Many theatre critics, who have previously bestowed honors on directors, such as Lee Yoon-Taek, through both favorable criticism and awards, feel a sense of responsibility for these tragic sexual exploitations and crimes that have taken place in and around the world of theatre. Theatre artists, audiences and critics alike, though stupefied, are rising up in protest against this long standing and disdainful ethos within their own theatre domain. Confronted by the cries of “the others,” who have long suffered from such machismo and paternalism that penetrated and persisted, throughout the twentieth century, in Korea, they are finally taking a unified, if long overdue, stand. Citizens, including people in theater, will no longer be satisfied with just grand narratives such as those witnessed during the recent change in political power. They have begun to seriously address and debate the real questions affecting their lives and are now demanding meaningful change across all social and political sectors. Following these two revolutionary movements that have recently taken place in Korea, 2018 is clearly shaping up to be the start of a new era both in the society at large and in Korean theatre, in particular.
 At the first trial on 6 April, she was sentenced to 24 years in prison and a fine of 18 billion won ($17 million).Editor’s note. May 2018.
 Derived from Chinese characters, the expression “Kwon Ri Jang Jeon” normally has the meaning of “Bill of Rights,” but the use of “Kwon Ri Jang Jeon” here takes on a different meaning, because the last word or character “Jeon” that translates as “book” can also mean “combat” when using a different Chinese character. Both characters have the same pronunciation in Korean. The “Yeonwoo Small Theatre” thus emphasized their willingness to “Fight” for their Rights and stressed their fighting spirit against the censorship by using the somewhat ambiguous or double meaning of the word “Jeon.”
*Noh, Yi-Joung is a Korean theatre critic. She has been teaching at several universities, including the School of Drama, Korean National University of Arts. She edited the Pan-Asian Performing Arts Magazine and worked as editor for The Korean Theatre Journal. She is currently serving as vice-president of the Korean Association of Theatre Critics.