Choi Ko-eun, Cho Young-il and Kim Young-ha’s (김영하) retirement from the web

Kim Young-ha (김영하)

Kim Young-ha (김영하)

There is an article today in the Korea Herald which explains why Kim Young-ha retired from twitter and blogging. In essence, he had an online disagreement with literary critic Cho Young-il about the causes of death, and implications of the death, of aspiring screenwriter Choi Go-eun. This disagreement became pointed, and then apparently spread internet wide. As one looks through the disagreement more closely, it seems to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot, although one with unfortunate results.

On Monday Kim closed his Twitter account, orphaning some 30,000 followers (including this blog). On Kim’s blog (which was on his website at – the Korean part of his site; The English site seems unaffected) Kim posted an apology to Choi and Cho, and announced that he will no longer be writing online. The twitter feed has disappeared, and while Kim’s Facebook and Website are still online, it is currently unclear to what extent he will continue to contribute to these sites, and to what extent he will continue his unprecedented online contact with his fans.

This is a tremendous loss to Kim’s fans and literature in general, as Kim has been one of the few Korean authors who has consciously and aggressively pursued expanded awareness of Korean culture and literature online in the English speaking world. In fact, I personally think that Kim is an important model in this regard. Lee Oisoo makes a similar effort in Korean, but Kim is the lone soldier in English.

Kim’s last blog post included the lines:

When I started this blog and Twitter a year ago, I had a certain hope that I would be able to communicate with people outside my room, But I should’ve known that I am not someone who is capable of such interaction … I will now take care of my immature ego and dark desires in isolation. … Most importantly, I’d like to ask forgiveness from Go-eun,” he wrote. “I wasn’t a helpful teacher while you were alive. And I’m no help even after you are gone. I am really sorry.

This seems a bit dramatic to Western ears, but may be an attempt to tamp down or deflect criticism that Kim is receiving online. The threat of netizen reaction against a public figure is considerable (ask Tablo) and it would do Kim’s career no good to continue a messy online spat. On February 8th the Korea Times noted that:

Her death is drawing public sympathy and causing a stir on the Internet, with hundreds of netizens posting messages mourning her death.

And to be on the wrong side of that sympathy could be very bad indeed.

According to the Times, the seeds of the online problem had been brewing for some time, since Kim and critic Cho disagreed in the aftermath of this year’s “Sinchun Munye,” Korea’s annual literary contest aimed at uncovering aspiring writers. Kim, in a laudable attempt to encourage those who did not win, posted that a writer should be judged by “their dignity” and not “the recognition of others.” Cho, who was critical of the contest and the difficulty young writers had in entering the Korean fiction market, wrote that Kim’s advice was impractical and unrealistic.
A skeptic might note that a critic such as Cho might well feel threatened by the notion that recognition of writers is not key to writerly success, since a critics entire job (and to be fair, the role of this blog as well) is to become famous by bestowing recognition, thus Kim’s model of an author is one that contains the possibility of marginalizing the role of the critic.

Cho responded that writers should create or join movements to change the current system, to ensure financial success and to fulfill their artistic goals. Kim, essentially, focused on the importance of the writer in a broken system, while Cho focused on the importance of the system.
The really unfortunate thing is that both propositions seem inarguably true, and Kim and Cho seem to be arguing from different sides of an unnecessarily Manichean scale. There are certainly artists who are inner driven, who need no help from a system (Burroughs, Elizabeth Bishop, etc). There are also writers who are entirely driven by approbation, primarily financial (I’m looking at you John Grisham!). But the best writers seem to be those who are driven by both, for example Shakespeare or Dickens.

So, in some sense, the ground for this argument was laid for the silliest reasons.

The Late Choi Go-eun

It sparked up in earnest when aspiring screenwriter Choi Go-eun (Director of “Passionate Sonata” ), a former student of Kim’s at Korea National University of Arts (KNUA and 2007 graduate), died. Choi was found dead in her studio in Anyang after posting a handwritten note on her door asking her landlord for leftover kimchi and rice. Choi apparently died of two diseases (she suffered from hyperthyroidism and pancreatitis), though some claim starvation.

Cho suggested a boycott of Korean movies to force better treatment of screenwriters, while Kim posted that writers should find their own purposes and not wait for social change. Apparently, Kim also noted that Choi died of her disease not starvation, and also apparently suggested that she may have been preparing to die.

The net result of all of this furor is that Kim, correctly or incorrectly, felt that the internet was not longer a productive venue for communication.
I think it is only fair to leave this overview with an eminently sensible passage from the Times article:

Author Kim Sa-gwa, another former student of Kim who had attended his class with Choi, replied, “Why do we have to choose between life and art?” and “Just because one fights against the rules of society, it does not mean his artistic drive has died.”