In 1981, during the ruthless military dictatorship, poet Kim Kwang-kyu published a monumental poem titled “The Land of Mists.” When I first encountered this poem, I was mesmerized by the intense and powerful central metaphor that painfully renders the social milieu of the time: “In the land of mists/ always shrouded in mist/ nothing ever happens/ And if something happens/ nothing can be seen/ because of the mist/ For if you live in mist/ you get accustomed to mist/ so you do not try to see/ Therefore in the land of mists/ you should not try to see/ You have to hear things/ For if you do not hear you cannot live/ so ears keep growing bigger. / People like rabbits/ with ears of white mist/ live in the land of mists.” (Translated by Brother Anthony)
Indeed, nothing was visible lucidly or conspicuous at that time, metaphorically speaking. People’s eyes were blindfolded and vision was blocked. Information was tightly controlled, too. For example, I subscribed to Time magazine and it was often delivered with torn pages due to the strict censorship. Those torn pages were presumably the articles about the military dictatorship in Korea. Newspapers and TV news were also closely monitored under the notorious censorship of the military government. Surveillance was rampant, too, and you had to be very careful when you talked in public places such as restaurants or cafes; you would not know who was spying on you, among those who sat nearby. At that time, everything was foggy and few people knew what was going on. It was like you were living in the land of mists where you could not see anything clearly.
Under the circumstances, people had to depend on rumors. As the poet Kim writes: “So ears keep growing bigger/ People like rabbits/ with ears of white mist/ live in the land of mists.” Like rabbits, people let their ears open wide to hear something because everything was foggy. Most rumors were true, even though they were appalling and unnerving. Others turned out to be groundless or vastly exaggerated. Nevertheless, at that time, people’s curiosity led them to get their news through the grapevine.
Those days are over now. We are now living in a democratized society where we can and should see everything clearly and thus we no longer depend on rumors. No more fog or mist. Everything is crystal-clear and constantly being watched by people. Our eyes have become wider and bigger as we live in a society that shows us everything in High Definition or even Ultra-High Definition. Nowadays, it has become virtually impossible to keep a skeleton in the closet.
Unfortunately, however, our ordeal has not ended yet. Instead of mist, we are now living in the land of micro-dust. What Kim depicted as mist in his celebrated poem was a metaphor, whereas micro-dust is something we have to face in real life. In a sense, it is like symbolism versus realism, and 1981 versus 2018. Both mist and micro-dust are bad for health and cause poor visibility. In fact, micro-dust is even worse than mist because the former not only seriously hampers visibility, but also is toxic. Prolonged exposure to micro-dust would surely damage our breathing organs, with fatal consequences.
Those ex-military politicians who were responsible for the mist in the 1980s were arrested and did time in prison. As for the micro-dust, however, nobody assumes responsibility even though the toxic material is seriously threatening our lives. We do not even seem to know who is to blame. Satellite photos show that it is coming from a neighboring country. But our government officials, perhaps not wanting to provoke the country, maintain that we too are responsible for emitting the toxic pollution. Living in the land of mists, you can still live and hear even though you cannot see clearly. Living in the land of micro-dust, however, you die if you cannot breathe or if you keep breathing the toxic air.
We do not deserve micro-dust. We deserve fresh air. We have every right to demand clean air. It is especially imperative for our children not to breathe polluted air. Our politicians are obligated to do something about the micro-dust. Newspaper reports say that only three nations on Earth are currently suffering from micro-dust and regrettably, Korea is one of them.
Perhaps we need to twist and parody Kim’s poem a bit. “In the land of micro-dust/ always shrouded in micro-dust/ And if something happens/ nothing can be seen/ because of the micro-dust/ If you live in micro-dust/ you get accustomed to micro-dust/ so you do not care about it/ Therefore in the land of micro-dust/ you must learn to survive without breathing/ For if you breathe the micro-dust, you cannot live long/ Woe to those who live in the land of micro-dust!”
Both mist and micro-dust are hazardous to us. We want to live in the land of clear vision and clean air.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.